" 'Eyes of the Roshi' tells the story of a fugitive Karate-Do grand master who leaves his Vietnamese home to prevent violence. He finds himself in America, where trouble follows," reads a release about the upcoming Virginia-made film. (Photo courtesy Light Age Films)
Whether a meme will develop from the phrase, “It’s a good one. Believe me! I can tell,” remains to be seen, but it crops up a few times in the original Virginia-made film “Eyes of the Roshi,” which had a Richmond press screening Wednesday morning in Cinema #9 of the Bowtie Movieland at Boulevard Square.
Here's the trailer (warning — bloody gunplay, sexual suggestiveness, and hand-to-hand fighting follow):
The martial arts action-adventure/yoga philosophy film comes from the production house of Ethan Marten. The film, lensed by John Mark Nail in and around Virginia Beach and Richmond, features Eric Roberts, Academy Award-nominated for “Runaway Train," and introduces yoga and martial arts practitioner and teacher Grand Master Adam Nguyen.
Marten describes the film as “early Coen brothers meets early Tarantino.” And there is an element of “Blood Simple," and, say, “Pulp Fiction,” sprinkled in with maybe “Kung Fu” (David Carradine-style) and even "Roadhouse." Except here, Nguyen – past 60 – is spry, agile and strong, because of his lifelong practice passed down in Vietnamese family tradition. Not only that, he composed his character's theme song and plays it on a guitar.
The film begins with the ring of a meditation bell and the contemplative instruction of Nguyen as Adam, urging compassion and doing good in the world. But if the idealist chooses this course, then a means of defense is required in preparation against those who just want to beat up anybody who gets in the way. Adam doesn't want to get into fights, but, well ... he wandered into "Curratuck County" and smack dab into the middle of some very, very bad people bent on doing harm. He's also got a stone-cold killer after him, hired to correct a wrong from decades before. There are grisly shots to the head and bloody fracases abounding, mostly when Adam can't intervene. He's only one man — but he's an army.
Marten’s experience on stage and in front of and behind the camera goes back more than 30 years; he, and his three brothers, came up in the business. Marten's father, entertainment attorney Albert E. Marten, produced a mixture of 150 Broadway plays and movies, including making the deals for the sale and distribution of Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
Marten moved to Virginia in the 1980s and started the Atlantic Film Studios in Suffolk. It was then the state’s first full-service motion picture production facility. In 2010 he formed Light Age Films. Since then, he’s parlayed his experience into various independent productions.
Albert Marten became a student of Nguyen, and through this relationship, Nguyen met Ethan. They became close, and Nguyen nudged Ethan toward creating a film vehicle for his art and skills. Nguyen also helped bankroll the picture, which was ultimately shot in three weeks for less than $1 million. Eric Roberts got involved through a not-atypical friend-of-a-friend-in-the-business-talk-at-a-party kind of way. Marten connected with casting director Donna McKenna, who’s worked with Roberts on more than a dozen projects, and thus it was arranged.
Eric Roberts' lowlife thug Booker brings a quiet menace to the proceedings, but for all his malevolence, he's just not too bright. The actor's presence made an impact, however: "He'd walk on set, and his just being there elevated everybody's performance," Marten says.
Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts ("Booker") with Stacy Whittle ("Sandy") in "Eyes of the Roshi" (Photo courtesy Light Age Films)
The “Roshi" cast is a mixture of theater and screen veterans and newcomers, including Amanda Victoria Dunn, Mark J. Zillges, Chris Van Cleave , Newton Miller, Justin Clements, Stacy Whittle and the brothers Marten — Ethan, Jonathan and Seth.
The grim prison cells of Fort Monroe become the confines of an Asian penal colony. Swampland near Knotts Island, North Carolina, and Maymont Park woods and bamboo groves also stand in for parts of Vietnam.
The mass fighting scenes with Nguyen whirling around and taking down bad guys with flying fists of fury required three weeks of rehearsal. Marten hired local mixed martial arts practitioners and wrestlers to participate. Nguyen says, laughing, “They were telling me, ‘Hit me harder, come at me!" But Marten subdued the over-eager, saying, “No, fellas, insurance, insurance.”
Marten intends to create a second “Roshi” film in addition to producing his brother Jonathan Marten’s long-brewing suspense-thriller “Lost April.” Jonathan plays a squirrely underworld type in the film, and his end isn’t a happy one. Is this some kind of sibling rivalry working itself out via film? Marten, fingertips on forehead shakes his head but laughs, “No, no, everybody thinks that.”
But the worst heavy of all is played by Ethan Marten himself, almost unrecognizable behind a wild beard and a thousand-yard stare. To me, he also resembled a much crazier version of television detective Jim Rockford’s sidekick, Evelyn “Angel” Martin, played by Stuart Margolin. That is, if Angel were also similar to the awful-haired, implacable death-dealer played by Javier Bardem in "No Country For Old Men.”
Ethan Marten both produced and acted in "Eyes of the Roshi." He plays the up-to-no-good character shown in the still above. (Photo courtesy Light Age Films)
“Eyes of the Roshi” is entered into 14 festivals and is seeking distribution. We saw it here first. A red carpet premiere takes place Aug. 20 at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.