Plot: They messed with the wrong woman. They will pay...
Following hot on the heels of Maria (2019) Furie (released domestically as Hai Phượng) is the quintessential martial arts movie. It’s a calculated and efficient retread of the Hong Kong Girls with Guns classic Angel (1987) (without the guns and slapstick humor), or Chocolate (2008) (with JeeJa Yanin) with the roles reversed, and it cleaned up at the box office with a hefty VND200 billion ($8.64 million) in just 4 weeks, making it the highest-grossing Vietnamese film of all time. A decade removed from Clash (2009) and seven years removed from her first Văn Kiệt feature House In the Alley (2012) Ngô Thanh Vân (better known in the Anglo-Saxon world these days as Veronica Ngo) has become an international superstar. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) raised her profile considerably but Ngo hasn’t forgotten the homeland. She remains a beloved pillar in domestic action – and martial arts cinema. Furie is a prime example of Vietnamese action at its best.
We’ll readily admit that our knowledge of Vietnamese cinema, martial arts or otherwise, is non-existent. Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia all forged regional variations on popular American (and European) productions, and we’re familiar with Malaysia by proxy through its assocation with Hong Kong and Mainland China. It would only be natural to assume that Vietnam, given its geographic proximity and cultural similarity to its immediately surrounding nations, would not lag far behind. Furie is our introduction to director Lê Văn Kiệt and he seems cut from the same cloth as Pedring A. Lopez (in the Philippines) or Ernesto Díaz Espinoza (in Chile). Which is a long way saying that Furie is hyperstylized, slick and efficient in its minimalism. A handful of characters, a very basic storyline, and action choreography from Arab-Frenchman Kefi Abrikh that borders on The Raid (2011) and Angela Mao territory in brutal efficiency.
Life has not been easy for Hai Phượng (Ngô Thanh Vân, as Veronica Ngo). In Trà Vinh, a town and province in the Mekong Delta, she’s barely able to make ends meet as a debt collector. She lives in a rickety shack with her precocious ten-year-old daughter Le Huyn Thi Mai (Mai Cát Vi, as Cát Vy) who seems to resent and love her in equal measure. Mai is tired of being bullied, by teachers and fellow students alike, at school and has drawn up a business plan to establish a fishing farm to get out of poverty. Phượng has her own reasons for living in the backwater town that she does. She used to be a big-time gangster and hustler. Upon joining the gang she abandoned her family, and she herself was ousted from the gang once she became pregnant. One day Hai and Mai are having an argument on the market square and when she turns around again Mai has suddenly disappeared. Hai Phượng pursues the thugs and lays waste to just about anything and everyone in the way, but is unable stop them. Rebuffed by her former criminal associates and bureaucracy and corruption stopping the police from being in any way helpful, Hai Phượng hitches a ride to Ho Chi Minh City (Sài Gòn or Saigon) to start her own investigation into Mai’s abduction in Trà Vinh market.
In Ho Chi Minh City Hai Phượng traces the whereabouts of low-level enforcer Nguyen Chanh Truc (Phạm Anh Khoa) to Đường Tôn Đản where he has a car mechanic business. Hai comes from an ancient bloodline trained in the art of Vovinam, and she too was instructed by her father (Lê Bình). After beating the daylights out of Truc she learns that even the fearsome Nam Ro gang answers to the sociopathic head of a human trafficking - and organ harvesting ring by the name of Thanh Sói (Trần Thanh Hoa) and her second-in-command Sau Theo (Minh Le). Hai Phượng tracks down their base of operations, but when confronted she’s roundly defeated by Thanh Sói and her armed goons, and nearly drowned for her interference. Around this time Le Minh Luong (Phan Thanh Nhiên), seasoned police detective and Vovinam practitioner, is informed of the latest abductions. After being nearly drowned for interfering with Thanh Sói’s operation Hai Phượng is rescued from certain death by an intervention from Le Minh and his team. Looking to make the best of a suboptimal situation Hai Phượng and Le Minh Luong team up together and make a formidable two-person wrecking crew. They take the fight to Thanh Sói. Will they be able to bust the sordid operation, and will Hai Phượng live long enough to see her beloved Mai again?
Obviously Furie isn’t out to revolutionize storytelling in the no-holds-barred action movie. Far from it. Furie is, for all intents and purposes, Chocolate (2008) with Veronica Ngo in the role that broke JeeJa Yanin to a wider audience. And this aren’t some superficial similarities either. Furie tells exactly the same story and only switches the protagonists around. In Chocolate (2008) JeeJa rescued her foster parents from loansharks and here the only available parent unit unleashes veritable hell on the wrongdoers on an epic scale. Action movies work the best when the premise is simple, the lead actor capable, and the director has an affinity for whatever makes the feature tick, whether that’s martial arts or gunfights. Here the martial art discipline of Vovinam is what sells Furie. Veronica Ngo shows some impressive chops that recall Angela Mao Ying’s greatest cinematic performances. Ngo is graceful, hard-hitting, versatile, and athletic just like Mao in Lady Whirlwind (1972) and The Tournament (1974). Lê Văn Kiệt understands that the story is a mere preamble to see Ngo fight and there’s just enough character and plot development to keep Furie moving forward at a good pace. A lot of action movies tend to sag either in the middle or towards the end when the baddie is defeated, but not so Furie. Once Mai is kidnapped Văn Kiệt signals that the game is on, and it’s not until the last man falls that Furie decides upon a breather.
Just like in BuyBust (2018) and Maria (2019) before it minimalism is the name of the game in Furie. Not every movie needs a boatload of secondary characters or numerous subplots to work. Furie works because it needs not to concern itself with a boatload of secondary characters or the resolution of one, or more, subplots. Sometimes a simple premise is all you need. Look at The Terminator (1984) and Commando (1985), both were so deceptive in their simplicity. The former was a slasher movie on the model of Friday the 13th (1980) with guns instead of knives, and the latter was a xerox so blatant (or earnest) of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) that it bordered dangerously on spoof territory. Die Hard (1988) worked exactly because the entire premise was so simple. Lê Văn Kiệt understands that less is always more in these type of movies but, more importantly, acknowledges that a relatable story is infinitely more important. The “parent looking for their kid” storyline is as old as time, and Furie tells it by way of retelling Chocolate (2008) for a Vietnamese audience. After all, the more things change the more they stay the same. Furie does nothing what Chocolate (2008) didn’t do already. The beauty of Furie lies in how graceful it goes about said retread.
Furie is bound to be remembered as a modern action classic not only because of Văn Kiệt’s slick direction or Veronica Ngo’s cutthroat performance, but because it understands what makes its protagonist tick. Couple that with top-notch action direction and choreography and Furie easily towers above the competition. BuyBust (2018) had a likeable lead but wonky action direction and uneven choreography. Somebody needs to give Veronica Ngo the chance to become the Vietnamese Michelle Yeoh that she obviously is. Had Ngo been around in the 1980s she probably was stiff competition for Moon Lee, Cynthia Khan, and Sibelle Hiu. Nowadays female action stars are far and few outside of Mainland China and maybe Hong Kong. Hollywood is still terminally afraid of the implications but will occassionally pay lipservice to the idea. It’s in no hurry to give it the chance and budgets it deserves. Thankfully other countries recognize potential when they see it. Directors like Lê Văn Kiệt or Pedring A. Lopez should be given a chance to direct a The Expendables sequel instead of wasting away working on small projects within their respective domestic cinematic industries. Furie is the kind of stuff that international breakthroughs are made of. If Veronica Ngo can break to English-speaking audiences so can Lê Văn Kiệt. Furie, simply put, kills.