While she will be known amongst many martial arts fans, Vietnamese-Australian actress Maria Tran isn’t exactly a household name, but she is working hard to remedy that. She already has a host of supporting roles under her belt, with the likes of Antony Szeto’s Fist of the Dragon (2014) where she co-starred alongside fellow martial artist JuJu Chan as well as Vietnamese blockbuster Tracer (2016).
In addition to her movie roles, for years she has been directing and starring in numerous shorts, all of which are terrific showcases for her martial arts talents. With her latest, indie actioner Echo 8, Tran has really taken her destiny in her own hands, not only starring in the lead role but also co-directing, editing, producing and assisting with the fight choreography. Amongst these roles she probably undertook other duties on set, pretty much the norm in low budget filmmaking. No doubt Echo 8 was a labor of love, not just for Tran but for everyone involved, many of whom carried out multiple duties throughout the production.
Tran stars as the titular Echo 8, who along with Delta 1 (David Vuong) work as assassins for the murky Zodiac Organization. They are overseen by Agenda 5 (Takeshi Hara) who assigns them the job of assassinating Hanh (Gabrielle Chan), a local protestor who is pressuring the government in reopening a series of cold cases, with her missing daughter being the catalyst behind her actions.
As well as this, both Echo 8 and Delta 1 are plagued by nightmares, with Echo 8’s clearly being memories from her past, memories she has buried deep for years. As the film progresses she starts to realize these memories may play a part in her current mission, a mission that is closer to home than she ever expected.
Before viewing, I think it’s important to recognize that Echo 8 is a considerably low budget affair, with the finances available to the filmmakers being less than what most productions would spend on their catering. To be honest, I think I probably spend more on catering and I’m not even in the business.
I’m not saying this so that audiences will overlook the film’s drawbacks, which are to be expected, but more to realize how difficult it would have been to create a full length feature on such limited resources. The fact that it was also produced during Covid-19 restrictions just makes it all the more remarkable that they were even able to get a film made at all.
Actually, these restrictions, somewhat work in the film’s favor, with them clearly being the reason that most of the street scenes are quiet, with nary another person but our protagonists appearing. This gives the film a suitably eerie atmosphere which helps lift the film up from just being a typical martial arts thriller. The outdoor scenes were somewhat reminiscent of the atmosphere Johnnie To was able to capture with his classic crime thriller P.T.U. (2003), where you are seeing streets that would normally be bustling with people almost desolate.
The majority of the film takes place at night which was no doubt also due to pandemic restrictions, although possible budget restrictions probably played a part. This is actually another plus point for the production, as unlike the majority of film’s shot on HD which look overly bright, the majority of the film has a professional sheen. Of course, it’s not perfect as the film still is unable to escape its budget limitations, with the cheapness of the production shining through.
Tran and her co-director (and husband) Takashi Hara do try to cover these budget limitations with varying degrees of success. Many group scenes are shot up close which helps cover up the lack of actual participants. This works especially well in the nightclub scene, where Tran and Hara are able to make the surroundings feel a lot busier than they actually are.
However, on several occasions they also decide to shoot the action up close. I understand that this was probably a necessity due to production restrictions, but it does affect the impact of the action, for while the fight choreography is decent the audience is restricted in how they view it.
Elizabeth H. Vu’s script does try to make Echo 8 more of a psychological thriller than a straight up actioner. The conscious afflicted assassin is a staple story element of the genre, so there isn’t a lot that can be done that hasn’t been done before, but Vu does attempt to give the story a fresh spin, with an almost surrealist aspect to the story. On several occasions it’s unclear whether the events happening on screen are real or part of a dream, allowing Tran and Hara to go a bit weird with certain scenes.
Considering the amount of jobs she has taken on, Tran fares considerably well in front of the camera. The lead role of Echo 8 gives her enough chances to show off her emotional side as much as it allows her to kick ass. Her best scenes are those which she shares with co-star David Vuong who plays fellow assassin Delta 1. The two of them share a nice camaraderie, with Delta 1’s desire to be more than just friends adding some tension to their scenes.
Vuong brings a comedic quality to his character, with Delta 1 not exactly being the most serious of assassins. Normally a character like this can be overbearing but thankfully he was mostly kept in check. In addition, like Tran, he gets ample chances to show off his martial arts skills, even if they are sometimes obscured by how they are framed.
Co-director Takashi Hara doesn’t fare as well as team leader Agenda 5, with his line delivery coming across slightly stilted, making his performance slightly wooden. However, I don’t want to be too judgemental as this may be intentional due to the character Hara is playing. He certainly looks the part, with his model looks making him standout from the crowd, and while he doesn’t get anywhere the same amount of action scenes as Tran and Vuong, when he finally gets a chance to bust a move he makes it clear he has considerable skills.
I did get a kick out of the appearance of Hong Kong cinema aficionado Mike Leeder who has an extended cameo as a shady member of the Zodiac Organization. His handful of scenes only feature his face, where he threateningly tells Agenda 5 his orders. I have a lot of time for Leeder, going back to the days where he worked on the magazine Impact. This was back in the day before you could just jump on Google and search for information on HK cinema, so Leeder and Impact were instrumental in my developing and continuing love for HK cinema. So anytime Leeder’s name shows up, it at least piques my interest. Leeder also acted as a co-producer on the film, having been involved in a number of Maria Tran productions in the past.
Although Echo 8 may not be a terrific film, it’s still quite an achievement when taking into consideration all the limitations the filmmakers had to face and the amount of jobs each crew member undertook by themselves. In regards to Tran, I highly doubt you will see any other filmmaker this year starring, directing, producing, editing and choreographing the fights of their own movie.
Mainstream viewers may be put off by the obvious low budget, and even I would have to admit that it is an obstacle. Still, there is a lot to admire here and would be a perfect film for any potential filmmakers to show what can be done on limited finances.
2023 looks like it should be a good year for Tran. Not only does she have Echo 8 due for release, she also has a supporting role in the upcoming television series Last King of the Cross (2023), where she will be acting alongside the likes of Tim Roth, Matt Nable and Callan Mulvey. Hopefully this will open up Tran to a wider audience, and I look forward to seeing what films she can come up with in the future when giving a larger budget.
Plot: 2.7/5 Acting: 3/5 Action: 2.7/5 Overall: 2.8/5