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Plot: schoolgirls dabble in witchcraft….

Contary to popular belief The Craft (1996) didn't immediately spawn a decade's worth of made-for-television imitations and direct-to-video rip-offs even though it arrived at the right time for such a thing to happen. Alas, the big home video boom of the 1980s had come to an end and continental European and South American exploitation had all but dried up in the wake of the market dominance of tentpole big budget Hollywood bilge. The coven and witchcraft (lesbian or otherwise) movie was very much a product of the 1970s Satanic Panic and its attendant hysteria that lasted well into the 1980s. The Craft (1996) took the gist of those psychedelic and psychotronic movies and distilled them into a herbalist wicca and alternative gothic lifestyle envisioned for the enlightened and empowered Lilith Fair crowd. It spoke to a generation of girls that grew up on strong, eloquent and enterprising young singer-songwriters as Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Liz Phair, Jewel, Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, Jann Arden, and the grandmother of them all, Suzanne Vega. Needless to say, The Craft (1996) became something of a commercial juggernaut that has continued to resonate with audiences and its legacy has long since overshadowed the movie itself. And then… nothing happened.

Well, there was Little Witches (1996) and that was about it for direct imitations. Or at least for the next decade. The Covenant (2006) was another imitation whose biggest novelty was the gender-swapping of the coven. Then there was the British equivalent The Coven (2015) about nine years later. Whereas that one got lost somewhere along the way and ended up stumbling into The Blair Witch Project (1999) territory (and never really recovered from that), Coven is more blatant (or is that honest?) about its thievery. Call it a homage, a reimagining, or a modern day remake. Call it what you will. Either way these rip-offs aren't what they used to be. This one has school girls (whether they’re Catholic is never made really clear) that are witches but demons and spirits of darkness aren’t anywhere to be seen. Starring nobody in particular and written as an almost scene-by-scene imitation of The Craft (1996) this Coven is neither scary nor very occult or pagan. The girls are pretty enough but none are Fairuza Balk or Sheeri Rappaport. You have a problem when Terri Ivens is your biggest star. Ivens is probably best known to the world at large for playing “Girl #2” in Marked for Death (1990). Coven will make you wish for the faithful recycling of Little Witches (1996).

A coven of undergrad witches – ringleader Ronnie (Jennifer Cipolla, as Jenny Cipolla), her second-in-command and girlfriend Jax (Miranda O'Hare), hormonically-charged Taylor (Jessica Louise Long), psychic Emily (Sofya Skya) and meek and complacent Beth (Margot Major) – has gathered for their nocturnal invocation to Ashura, a powerful witch that was defeated by another coven some 200 years before. During the Calling of the 4 Quarters Ronnie loses her patience and accidently kills Christy (Sara Stretton). Requiring the full power of the coven to complete the ritual Ronnie instructs Beth to find and recruit a suitable candidate. Her eye falls on Sophie (Lizze Gordon) who has lost her mother (Jill Deluca) but shows no immediate interest in joining the coven. An enlighting séance with Emily helps opening Sophie’s mind to the idea. On the campus history professor Dr. Lynn (Terri Ivens) has suspicions of mystic going-ons at the faculty. The girls have their own lives too. Taylor wants nothing more than to the horizontal mambo with stoner Zak (Aaron James) and Sophie is far more interested in getting into the pants of James (Adam Horner) than with any of the boring day-to-day matters of the coven. When Ronnie kills another member of the coven to absorp her powers Sophie and Beth bundle their forces to stop her once and for all…

For a movie proudly written and directed by women Coven spents inordinate amount of time gawking at these witches and their skimpy black lingerie at virtually every turn. For a supposed clan of misfits, quirky goths or a random assortment of social pariahs all them are conventionally beautiful blondes, brunettes, and gingers. As expected, the depiction of witchcraft is goofy and cartoony. This one has its witches throwing around and launching their spells as if they’re in a DC or Marvel superhero movie (or a video game, whichever you prefer). Authenticity wasn’t high on the list of priorities and if you expect the herbalist/nature worship of The Craft (1996) – look elsewhere. The problems pretty much start from the first scene with the summoning of Ashura. Unlike what Coven would want you to believe Ashura is not some obscure or arcane pagan deity but a day of commemoration for Shia Muslims and one of celebratory fasting for Sunni Muslims. Likewise, there’s no no autumn solstice, the closest thing there is is the equinox. Good to see that these movies still couldn't be bothered to Google what they're talking about. There isn’t a lot of meat to Lizze Gordon’s script and it very faithfully follows every major plotline and/or character arc of The Craft (1996). For whatever reason, this one has a distinctly Caucasian cast and there isn’t a minority in sight. Where in The Craft (1996) the girls actually wore what you’d expect of social outcasts here they sport fashion of the y2k futurist aesthetic. Why? Are these witches or rave chicks? The pounding club score admits as much. Admittedly, the Mario Bava and Dario Argento inspired blue-red lighting is a nice touch. Oh yeah, and apropos of nothing, the witch cult scenes in Lucero (2019) were more convincing and there they had practically nothing to do with the mainplot.

Thank fuck none of the girls is named Faith. Movies like this are giving critics a crisis of faith and there’s nothing graceful about that. Don’t expect any Shakespeare or Baudelaire quotes. Gordon’s script is not nearly smart enough for that. If you’re expecting Catholic school girls in plaid skirts, knee-high socks and half-open shirts corrupting a wholesome, studious Christian girl, you’re shit out of luck. The sapphic allusions or suggestions are extremely mild and timid. Whereas Little Witches (1996) had Sheeri Rappaport unbuttoning her shirt, spilling out her breasts, and lifting her skirt before ferociously dry-humping a confessional with whorish aplomb, none of that will be happening here. Coven is so tame it doesn’t even have the gall to include the girls doing any skyclad incantations from dusty, leatherbound Latin tomes around smoke-filled cauldrons in mouldy caves. There’s not even a rubbery demonic monster in the finale to this. Coven will make you wish it so much as had Sheeri Rappaport dancing around in the nude in an apartment window. For all its posturing Coven is dreadfully bereft of bare-naked Catholic schoolgirls, heresy, blasphemy or even anything remotely transgressive or provocative. Coven doesn't even have the guts to commit to the sleaze, heresy, and lesbian histrionics the way The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Black Magic Rites (1973), and Alucarda (1977) had the cojones to. None of these girls seem ready to commit to the role in the ways Rosalba Neri, Rita Calderoni, or Tina Romero were back in the old days. Oh, the good old days of witchcraft movies. You know a movie is pretty fucking terrible when Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) and even Blood Sabbath (1972) did this whole spiel better half a century ago.

Plot: They robbed her of her innocence. They will pay.

Thanh Sói - Cúc dại trong đêm (or Thanh Wolf - Wild Daisies in the Night, released internationally simply as Furies) is the long-awaited follow-up to Furie (2019). There always has existed a great synergy between the regional cinematic traditions of the more liberated (and Western inclined) Hong Kong, the isolationist Chinese mainland, the nearby Taiwan, and to a degree even the Philippines. Vietnam remains largely untrodden territory for us (unlike, say, Indonesia and Malaysia) but if Furies is any indication, it can easily compete with its Southasian counterparts. Furies is, for the lack of a better descriptor, a female-centric (and feminist) martial arts action movie on the model of Teresa Woo San’s classic Iron Angels (1987-1989) trilogy. Furies is to Furie (2019) what Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) was to The Terminator (1984). That is to say, it’s a thematic follow-up largely cut from the same cloth as the original that expands just enough upon the established formula to justify the retread. Furies knows its strengths and improves upon them with bigger production values and scope.

Let’s not mince words. Furie (2019) was one of the best martial arts movies that year and forever etched Veronica Ngo in our heart. Lê Văn Kiệt had made a modern classic but curiously he’s nowhere to be found here. You’d imagine that Văn Kiệt went back to the drawingboard as soon as Furie (2019) smashed its way to international fame. No such things seems to have happened. The creative force behind Furies is Ngô Thanh Vân (or Veronica Ngo as us Westerners know her). Ngo is known in the West mostly for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and remains mostly active in Vietnam. Ngo not only stars, but also produced, co-wrote, and directs. Where a good deal of direct sequels fail is that they insist upon not deviating from the established formula or format sometimes forcing beloved characters from previous installments into unlikely scenarios eventhough their story was either self-contained and already told. Furies shows its intelligence by realizing that Furie (2019) told the story of Hai Phượng and needed not to be told again. Instead Furies focuses upon expanding on the backstory of the villain and details the ascension of Thanh Sói to the throne of the Nam Ro cartel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Living on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City Bi (Đồng Ánh Quỳnh) was the victim of both a violent childhood and sexual assault. As a stray she survives by pickpocketing and life on the streets her made her tough. One day she runs into Jacqueline Hoang (Ngô Thanh Vân) who sees potential in Bi’s violent outbursts and penchant for casual destruction. Bi reluctantly agrees to live at her halfway house after hearing they share a common enemy, the Nam Ro cartel that operates every major crime branch in the city. At the house she lives with level-headed rock chick Thanh (Tóc Tiên) and sparkly party girl Hong (Rima Thanh Vy). They too are survivors of sexual assault and victims of a violent childhood. Aunt Lin considers her latest recruit a vital addition to her all-girl vigilante group The Wild Daisies and she teaches all three the ancient art of Vovinam and a regiment of special weapons training and infiltration techniques. Lin’s goal? To dismantle the Nam Ro cartel from the bottom up. The Wild Daisies are ordered to eliminate The Big Four at the New Century club: Long 'bồ đà' or "The Dealer" Long (Song Luân) who controls their narcotics distribution and has caused untold misery to so many, Tèo 'mặt sẹo' or "Scarface" Teo (Phan Thanh Hiền) who runs the cartel’s prostitution ring and their associated brothels, Sơn 'Lai' or "Half-Blood" Son (Gi A Nguyễn), personal bodyguard of "Mad Dog" Hai – and, finally, Hải 'Chó điên' or "Mad Dog" Hai (Thuận Nguyễn), head of the cartel. In the explosive finale the loyalties of The Wild Daisies are tested when it is revealed that not everybody’s motives are pure.

If you couldn’t tell from the plot summary above Furies is part of a decades-old cinematic tradition in Asia, the female-centric martial arts movie. Sure, it’s derivative, but its constituent parts are borrowed from some of the finest vintage 1980s Hong Kong Girls with Guns and wider Asian martial arts movies from back then and now. For starters it has the three-girl wrecking crew from Iron Angels (1987-1989). There’s the semi-mute stray that happens to be a savant martial artist from Chocolate (2008), the mainplot is lifted almost verbatim from Jing Wong’s Naked Weapon (2002) and Naked Soldier (2012) with a dash of Kick Ass Girls (2013) and some Vietnamese flavor. The Hong Kong and John Woo influence of Naked Killer (1992) is almost completely absent. Furies has that feminist undertone of Mistress Killer (2016) and Husband Killers (2017) (but is thankfully less blunt/obtuse about its political affiliation). Just like Extra Service (2017) this one prides itself on its retro 90s aesthetic of bright neon and pastel colors. As before Furies bathes in hues of green, blue, and red (somebody clearly knew their Mario Bava and Dario Argento, or simply continued what Lê Văn Kiệt started) and the 90s throwback is a good excuse to fill it with V-pop from back in the day. Thanh is the obligatory depressed grunge girl, Hong is the crazy rave chick prone to wearing outrageously revealing PG-13 outfits and bouncing off the walls, and Bi wears the expected tracksuits. Any movie that blasts 2 Unlimited’s ‘No Limit’ during a club scene always gets good points in our book. Paradisio’s ‘Bailando’ or the Vengaboys’ ‘Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!’ would’ve probably been too cheery for something this dark.

As always, less is usually more in these type of movies. Furie (2019) was minimal, calculated, and efficient and its story served largely as a preamble to get in as much high-octane action scenes as possible. Back once again is Arab-Frenchman Kefi Abrikh and his choreography and action direction continue to echo The Raid (2011) in sheer brutality and stark utilitarianism and the girls’ routines are in the Angela Mao tradition in that they are hard-hitting, versatile, and athletic. Đồng Ánh Quỳnh, Tóc Tiên, and Rima Thanh Vy underwent a year of rigorous martial arts training in preparation for their roles and it shows. Perhaps the best thing Veronica Ngo did was casting herself in the role of Aunt Lin in a twist straight out of the Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) playbook. It also changes the location from rickety shacks in backwater villages in the Vietnamese jungles to the neon-lit sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City (Sài Gòn or Saigon as we know it). As a throwback to the Category III genre of old Furies has enough sex to please anyone yet Đồng Ánh Quỳnh, Tóc Tiên, and Rima Thanh Vy are never really sexualized or objectified. To her everlasting credit, Ngo herself takes more of a backseat here acting as a mentor both in front as well as behind the camera. Tóc Tiên is probably the best known of the three (or the most easily marketable) as she’s a former teen idol that turned to modeling and singing before becoming a television personality as a judge on The Voice of Vietnam and Vietnam Idol Kids. Rima Thanh Vy is the most conventionally beautiful of the three and in Western hands she would’ve been the central character. Some of the visual effects are a bit iffy, the bike chase is the most egregious and downright videogamey in part, especially in HD and 4k resolution. Other than that Furies looks and sounds spectacular and the increased budget clearly helped.

In the day and age of franchises, spin-offs, and series Furies is that rarest of sequels. It’s not so much a retread of an established formula but an expansion upon concepts of the original. Furie (2019) was a strong stand-alone feature and any sequels were not really expected (or even necessary). Regardless, Furies defies expectations by doing the same but doing it different enough to justify its existence. The retro 90s aesthetic is better realized than most of these throwbacks but it is, and remains, a gimmick. If Netflix decides to greenlight another sequel it’s time to look at how the events of Furie (2019) shaped Mai and the relation with her mother. In an ideal world mother and daughter would bundle forces to defeat a common enemy or a larger threat looming over them. Preferably without any aesthetic gimmicks. Let’s hope Maria (2019) and BuyBust (2018) eventually receive a similar treatment. Furie (2019) killed and Furies, simply put, effortlessly and elegantly kills again.