The last time I soaked up the projected humid climes of Vietnamese cinema was with the sumptuous The Rebel in 2007. That film’s female lead, Veronica Ngo (Ngô Thanh Vân) is the sole lead for Furie — wearing a very similar outfit — and it’s great to see her in action stride again. Vietnam kept producing films in the intervening years, but they were not widely distributed. Once Upon a Time in Vietnam — also featuring Ngo — is the only other one I recall seeing on DVD store shelves. However, streaming services have opened new delivery routes, and thus films like Furie are arriving on our digital shores.
I’m a bit of a DVD diehard, but the number of films only accessible on streaming has finally convinced this fan to fork over a monthly fee, at least for a time. (SBS On Demand streams for free and has a lot of films that should interest HC readers.) Furie is a Netflix original film, and while I’m hopeful it — and films like it — will see physical release some day, it’s nice to jump on these things when they’re fresh, or at least not yet stale in the case of this 2019 film.
Back to Veronica Ngo. She’s popped up in quite a few Netflix studio-financed films, from so-so sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and the poorly received Bright, to Spike Lee’s latest Da Five Bloods and graphic novel based actioner The Old Guard. I’m hopeful she could have a Michelle Yeoh style career trajectory, crossing over between eastern and western productions for a long time to come. Furie is another in her growing list of credits as producer, so that should help.
It’s a well-ploughed furrow, as far as the story goes — desperate parent will stop at nothing to get a child back. Ngo has even hit this plot point before in Bay Rong (a.k.a. Clash). What’s unusual here is that her character is pretty unlikable. Hai Phoung works as a debt collector and she’s pretty brutal about it. Practically everyone in town hates her and by extension her daughter Mai (Mai Cát Vi) is bullied at school, the very place Hai Phuong works so hard to pay for. A lot of time is spent letting the friction between her worthy goals and callous methods grind away, and the strain this places on the relationship between mother and daughter. When Mai is snatched in a crowded market one day, Hai Phuong’s guilt and fierce determination will take her back to her old stomping grounds in Saigon and a settling of scores from the past. This drive for justice/vengeance is likely the reason behind the title, referencing the relentless furies in Greek mythology, but the connection is never directly made.
The film spans a variety of locations, from rural to urban, and shows off the scenery well. There’s a particular predilection for aerial shots, which sure makes the film feel higher budget than it probably is. Perhaps drones have made these shots more feasible than hiring helicopters. I like lingering establishing shots providing a sense of place, but they’re overused here to the point of standing out and taking me out of the movie. Back at ground level, clutter is suitably scattered around and makes the whole film feel lived in, as well as providing improvised weapons like in a workshop full of tools.
There’s a lot of build up, including some suitably tense music bubbling away, but the action doesn’t quite deliver. An early chase with a motorbike and a boat feels like it’s leading to a big stunt, but ends in a much more standard fashion. Once in the city, there’s a lot of time spent tracking down where Mai could have been taken and not enough action to back it up. Hai Phuong has one night in Saigon to find her daughter, but breaks just keep killing the pacing. There’s a detour to the hospital and an overabundance of flashbacks, although these do establish Hai Phuong’s background in vovinam martial arts. We’re here to see Veronica Ngo cut loose in righteous fury and it’s frustrating to have to wait so long.
Fights are also cut together too rapidly, although generally flow well enough to follow. The climax thankfully delivers the best action, centred around a train. Green screen backgrounds and other dodgy effects work aside, the action itself is pretty sweet. Hai Phuong faces gang leader Nu Quai (Thanh Hoa) and actually useful cop Captain Vu Truong Luong (Phan Thanh Nhiên) takes out a sufficient serving of hoodlums. There’s also a scene with guns that looks flipping rad, although it covers up some unbelievable moments with careful framing.
It’s all a bit slapdash tonally, mostly playing up the drama and emotion, but throwing some odd humour and cheesy movie dialogue in along the way. Recent Chinese co-productions SPL II: A Time for Consequences and Paradox both placed their organ trafficking gangs in Thailand, so it was a bit of a surprise to have Furie keep such nasty business within its own borders and focused on child trafficking no less! Within this grim story, it’s strange having a nurse talk about using film conventions to help Hai Phuong escape from hospital. There’s some stiff acting in parts too, although it’s hard to blame the likes of Phan Thanh Nhiên for that. It’s his first screen appearance, he’s mainly known as an athlete and… being the youngest Vietnamese to summit Mt Everest? Well, that’s unexpected and pretty awesome! He does look the part physically. His conversation with an informant throws out my favourite line — “Never mess with a tigress guarding her cubs”. Yes please, show me more of that.
There’s a lot going on in Furie and it all adds up to a mixed bag that doesn’t really settle. There’s nothing terrible, but a shorter, tighter film would have delivered a more focused experience capitalising on the heart of the film.