As communist Vietnam opens up to foreign and diaspora film-makers, the state-driven local film industry is looking to benefit from exposure to foreign film crews and investment. Yet ghosts remain and US directors are often refused entry on arrival. Not so The Rebel director Charlie Nguyen, who grew up in California after his family emigrated from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon in 1975.

"It was different for us because it's a patriotic, historical subject," explains the director, adding that the Vietnamese government shifted from a position of strict censorship to a more supportive role as the authorities came to understand the film.

"It reflects my personal identity with Vietnam. Living in the US, I felt disconnected from my culture and people. The film was like a bridge, letting me go back and make that connection."

Inspired by the exploits of the director's grandfather fighting against French colonists in the 1920s, The Rebel follows a government agent who turns freedom-fighter, and charts his epic journey across Vietnam.

Keeping it in the family, the director cast his younger brother, Johnny Tri Nguyen - previously seen as the villain in Tony Jaa's Tom Yum Goong - who also choreographed the martial-arts scenes and co-scripted and co-produced with Nguyen.

Ngo Thanh Van stars as the love interest, a fierce independence fighter, and Dustin Nguyen (no relation), best known from 1980s TV series 21 Jump Street, plays the government henchman who hunts the pair.

The Rebel, released in Vietnam in April 2007 by local co-producer Chanh Phuong Film, is the country's biggest box-office hit to date. Despite being shot in three months on a $3m production budget, the film is packed with lavish action sequences and pyrotechnics. It was financed initially by the director's friends, family and business acquaintances, and later by Phuong Nam Bank in Vietnam.

It screened at last year's Bangkok International Film Festival and the Hawaii International Film Festival, where it won the top prize. The film's English-speaking DVD rights were picked up for six countries by The Weinstein Company. Lightning Entertainment picked up all non-English language rights and, at the recent AFM, sold to Germany and Benelux (Splendid), Scandinavia (Noble), Brazil (PlayArte), Greece (Audio Visual), the Middle East (Eagle) and Thailand (Box Office).

"I don't think we could have made The Rebel in any other place," says Nguyen. "We had an excellent cast and crew who worked for next to nothing in harsh circumstances. The lead even broke her leg, but we continued shooting."

Nguyen is now working on the script of a contemporary Saigon gangster film with his The Rebel producing partner Jimmy Pham, and is about to produce Dustin Nguyen's directorial debut.


Favourite recent movie: American Gangster.

Favourite recent book: The Power Of Film by Howard Suber.

Favourite newspapers and magazines: The trades, Moviemaker, Creative Screenwriting magazine, MAC World, MAC Addict ("love the Mac, keep myself updated"), Sports Illustrated, Time.

Where do you find inspiration for your work' Life provides the best stories. It depends on the day. I can be inspired by almost anything - the weather, music, a song on the radio.