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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.

Plot: terminally ill adventurer attempts to catch snake to attain immortality.

Hisss is one of those beautiful trainwrecks that can only happen (and will continue to do so) when producer and director don’t see eye to eye on the fundamentals. The Asian snake goddess myth continues to fascinate Westerners. Hisss was an attempt by an American director to adapt it for a Hollywood audience. In Bollywood Rajkumar Kohli set the standard with his Nagin (1976) that starred both Reena Roy and Rekha. In Hong Kong Tsui Hark adapted the legend for his deeply oneiric The Green Snake (1993) with Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung as the snakes. Despite favorable domestic box office returns Hisss (which initially was going to be called Nagin: the Snake Goddess before producer Govind Menon re-cut it) was widely considered a failure. We’re on the fence about Hisss. On the one hand the critiques aren’t entirely unfounded and it could have been far stronger under better circumstances. On the other hand, Hisss could have been far worse too. For a Bollywood production Hisss is suspiciously bereft of the usual trappings that come with such a description and there’s no way a Hollywood audience is going to fall for an English-language Hindi movie full of people they don’t know. Thankfully Hisss hasn’t damaged Mallika Sherawat’s domestic career too much and she was able to walk away from it relatively unscathed. Hell, Mallika even went as far as to pose with snakes on the 2010 Cannes Film Festival to promote Hisss.

The director of Hisss is Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of David, who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what she does. Chambers worked as a production assistant on her father’s Blue Velvet (1986) and from there moved on to direct the New Model Army music video 'Living in the Rose'. Her directorial debut Boxing Helena (1993) was critically panned and infamously savaged by the National Organization of Women who launched a campaign against it. Following the release Chambers underwent three spinal surgeries due to a car accident that had occured earlier. For the next 15 years she withdrew from much of public life in order to raise her newborn daughter. Her second film would arrive in the new millennium in the form of Surveillance (2008). Her comeback effort won the top prize at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain and Chambers was the first woman to receive the Best Director award at the New York City Horror Film Festival.

In 2010 Chambers traveled to India for the Govind Menon production Hisss, a project was envisioned as Mallika Sherawat’s overdue Hollywood debut. Menon had worked with Sherawat earlier on Bachke Rehna Re Baba (2005), Kis Kis Ki Kismat (2004), and Khwahish (2003). Producer Ratan Jain had done the same on the comedy Maan Gaye Mughall-E-Azam (2008). Apparently Chambers and Menon had a falling with Chambers leaving once shooting had wrapped. She had envisioned Hisss as a romance but producer Menon edited it as a horror movie, cutting out the romantic scenes as well as any and all of the obligatory songs. Understandably Chambers has since disavowed Hisss while Sherawat remains Bollywood celebrity. After the Hisss debacle Chambers directed the flawed thriller Chained (2012), the Sierra Swan music video for 'Emotional' in 2014, and has since returned to directing for television.

Aging adventurer George States (Jeff Doucette) is dying from brain cancer and has come to Kerala, India in desperate search of a last panacea. He believes that if he can extract blood from the sacred nagmani stones of the Nāga that his debilitating affliction will be cured. He and his entourage have come to Sahyadri, the rainforest of the Western Ghats, to find such stones. States’ plan is simple: capture a Nag and keep it in captivity to lure a Nagin to come to her imprisoned mate’s rescue. States and his local henchmen succeed in their plan and await for the Nagin to come. The Nagin assumes the form of a beautiful woman (Mallika Sherawat) and travels to the town of Nainchi. There she’s mesmerized by snake charmer Dinesh (Mahmoud Babai, as Mahmood Babai) and makes her acquaintance with police officer Vinkram Gupta (Irrfan Khan). Gupta has his own problems. His loving wife Maya (Divya Dutta) is barren and their lack of offspring strains their relationship. Nagin helps a few local women by getting rid of the town’s undesirable elements. Vinkram is ordered to investigate the sudden spate of mysterious murders, unaware that they are committed by the beautiful mute woman he met earlier. Nagin does find her captured mate in States’ hideout and once reunited the two copulate. Around the same time that Gupta figures out the murder case George tries to obtain the sacred nagmani from the Nāga and is killed for his trouble. Vinkram returns home to find his wife Maya giving birth to a baby while the Nagin, now in the safety of her jungle home, breeds her own spawn.

Since debuting inauspiciously in 2002 the repertoire of Mallika Sherawat has been all over the cinematic map in both the literal and the figurative sense. First Sherawat has starred (probably more than any other Hindi actress of her generation) in remake after remake of popular foreign imports. In 2003 she starred in Khwahish (2003), a remake of Love Story (1970). She followed that with Murder (2004), Bachke Rehna Re Baba (2005), and Ugly Aur Pagli (2008), Bollywood remakes of Unfaithful (2002), Heartbreakers (2001), and South Korean drama My Sassy Girl (2001), respectively. Then Sherawat appeared in Dasavatharam (2008) as well as the Bruno Mars music video ‘Whatta Man’ in 2012. Unlike Priyanka Chopra (who parlayed her liaison with Nick Jonas into a steady Hollywood – and music career) Mallika’s failed American television debut came with a a guest role in the series Hawaii Five-0 (2010) in 2014, but was not enough to leave any kind of lasting impression.

On two seperate occassions Sherawat has tried her hand at Asian productions. Once in Hong Kong with The Myth (2005) where she starred alongside Jackie Chan and then again more than a decade later in the Mainland China action-adventure Time Raiders (2016). Right in the middle of all that lies the ill-fated Hisss, a remake of the Rajkumar Kohli vintage Nagin (1976) where Sherawat inherited the role of the seductive snake spirit that Filmfare award nominee Reena Roy played so formidably in the earlier version. Lest we be remiss to mention, Nagin (1976) was a Hindi remake of the François Truffaut classic The Bride Wore Black (1968). Sherawat is known for her women’s rights activism, a long-time Bollywood sex symbol, and is one of the most popular celebrities in her part of the world. Be that as it may, this Mallika (no, not that one) apparently can’t seem to catch a break…

Largely a preamble to see Mallika Sherawat skulk and writhe around Hisss could just as easy have been made in America. If this was ever to get an American remake (the chances of which are very slim, not to say nil) Diane Guerrero, Gina Rodriguez, Vela Lovell, Jackie Cruz, or Antoinette Kalaj would be ideal for the part. The special effects are good enough and even though Hisss has some slight resemblances to The Loreley’s Grasp (1973) in terms of imagery, these are merely superficial. Hisss is thoroughly Asian. It’s closest cousin is Tsui Hark’s wuxia fantasy The Green Snake (1993) that uses the Chinese folk tale Madame White Snake as its basis. Chambers doesn’t have the painter’s brush and eye for scene composition that Hark had in his prime. A lot of the time Hisss sort of feels like a Hindi take on Anaconda (1997), whether or not that is a good thing is up to the viewer. Mallika is obviously a better actress than Jennifer Lopez ever was. For one it’s leagues better than Cheung Kwok-Kuen’s Mainland China monster romp Snake Curse (2004), but anything is. Bereft of the usual extended singing and dancing routines Hisss is only (a comparatively anemic) 90 minutes long and thus relatively short by Bollywood standards. That Hisss is neither here nor there is ultimately its undoing. For a Bollywood audience this is probably not the epic it ought to have been, and for Western general audiences it’s probably too confusing as to what exactly the point is.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Hisss as such. Even if it, at just under an economic 100 minutes, often feels longer than it actually is. It’s fairly evident from the onset that it was subject to some rather extreme cutting. There’s a single dance routine at the very beginning which very much sets Hisss up as the romance it was envisioned as. Once the musical interlude has passed Hisss changes into a fairly standard, at least by Western standards, monster movie. The sudden tonal shifts are quite jarring and often clash with each other. Just how much of the Chambers-shot material was cut by executive meddling is unclear but Hisss would’ve benefitted tremendously from having lengthier transitions between the character - and horror scenes. Since director and producer no longer appear to be on speaking terms the hopes of a director’s cut are slim at this point. The special effects work of Robert Kurtzman and his Indian team is good enough. Mallika did most of her own stunts and Hisss is a convenient excuse to see her slithering around seductively. Sherawat doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue for the entirety of the movie and communicates primarily in moans and hisses. As a contemporary retelling of the Southeast Asian Nāga myth there have been worse examples. Which doesn’t make Hisss good or anything, although it certainly didn’t deserve the bad rep it has gotten in both Hollywood and Bollywood.