I sorta knew of Veronica Ngô Thanh Vân, a.k.a. Veronica Ngo, from CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY (she played Mantis) and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (she played Paige Tico, Rose’s sister who dies heroically at the beginning). But now that I’ve seen her star in FURIE… holy shit. I’ll have to see more.
This is a really good action vehicle because it introduces her as a cool, morally ambiguous anti-hero, then reveals her vulnerability, then throws her into a classical action scenario (kidnapped daughter, like COMMANDO or TAKEN) that leads to a whole lot of asskicking and stunt work but also inspires a layered, emotional acting performance. I’m completely ignorant of Vietnamese cinema and have no idea if this is representative at all, but it’s like some of the action and some of the melodrama of a Thai martial arts movie, but much more organically fused into one thing.
So, first the part where she’s a badass. Hai Phuong (Ngo) is a fearsome debt collector. People run from her in fear. Some dudes think they can take her on. They’re mistaken. There’s a certain Clint Eastwood vibe in the way she squints under her farmer’s hat. She looks fuckin cool.
But her life isn’t great. She brings the money to her boss, the mean payroll bitch who sits at a table insulting and disappointing everyone. Hai forks over everyone else’s debts that she had to beat out of them, and this lady tells her it’s not enough. She gets paid less than she needs, and it’s not even handed to her – she has to pick it up off the ground. No dignity around here. Everybody’s struggling.
(WARNING: We never see that boss character again, so don’t hold your breath for a sweet comeuppance like I did.)
We see another debt collector terrorizing people at the village market, and realize everybody must view Hai the way we view that guy: a total fucking asshole. She sees her daughter Mai (Cát Vy) coming home from school, being picked on by other kids for not having a dad and for having the scary debt collector mom. Hai’s way of intervening is to yell at Mai for not being home yet.
At home the shame is clear. Mai sees her mom’s bloody knuckles and knows what she’s been up to today. She tries to convince her of a plan to start a fish farm. Get out of the business of preying on everybody else’s poverty, so people won’t hate them. That conversation happens before they have to hide from the guy knocking on the door threatening to kill Hai for breaking his brother’s leg.
Ngo conveys so much about this character. She’s risked and sacrificed a great deal for this humble life, and clings tightly to what little she has. The strict way she talks to Mai seems to be a sincere attempt to toughen her up for a harsh world, and then we see Hai’s true vulnerable self when she gets a moment alone to enjoy a cigarette. She clearly has regrets but is stubborn about giving up the ways she knows.
But she must know her daughter is right, or just want to make her happy, because she tries to pawn a pair of earrings that have sentimental value to her in order to pay for Mai’s fish farm. I was in no hurry to get past this drama. I was invested. And then very suddenly some bad guys grab Mai, and Hai is chasing them through the market, beating down a bunch of dudes that jump out with meat cleavers, stealing a scooter to drive along the river chasing kidnappers on a boat – hey, that’s even better. The miraculous thing about Ngo is that she can grab a guy and ram his head through a wooden cart, and also break our hearts with the tone of voice with which she keeps screaming her daughter’s name – in the same scene!
This boat chase immediately reminded me of Jackie Chan, KISS OF THE DRAGON and ONG-BAK. The Hong Kong style of action that spread to other countries in the ‘90s and 2000s but is sadly scarce today. It’s a little less action than some of those, but it’s a similar energy. Apparently they’re doing the Vietnamese martial art Vovinam, which admittedly I’d never heard of. It’s an exciting style with alot of hard side kicks. It took me a bit to adjust to the speed of the editing, but the moves are mostly filmed very clearly.
Hai chases the kidnappers to Saigon, where she looks out of place in her country attire (and with dirt on her face). But we learn that she was some kind of underworld figure there before getting into trouble and fleeing to raise her daughter. She tries to get help from her connections, but they aren’t happy to see her back. When she goes to the police she talks to some dipshit assistant who has an aggravating way of telling her to slow down and remain calm.
But, you know how movie moms are. Not without my daughter. She tricks him into leaving the room so she can study the missing persons files herself and figure out who she needs to question to find out where they took Mai. She’s not fuckin around.
It’s got a nice look to it (cinematographer: Morgan Schmidt). The countryside is bright and sunny, but in Saigon she’s often in dark rooms or alleys that contrast worn textures with with bright colors. Lots of purple, blue, red and pink lights. I thought of both BUYBUST and ATOMIC BLONDE. At times it’s can be subtle, like the orange wall and green windows on the right side of this frame:
Other times it’s extreme, like during the big fight scene pictured below. This isn’t supposed to be a dance club or an alley lit by neon signs – this is the inside of a train car.
I love that we’re in a period where serious action movies can be so visually colorful. I mean, check out the scary building where they lock up kidnapped poor kids for organ trafficking.
You could almost cut that into SUSPIRIA!
A pretty good encapsulation of the movie’s themes is when she tracks down Truc (Phạm Anh Khoa, THE LADY ASSASSIN), a mechanic who used to work with the traffickers but is trying to stay out of it now. His mother (Trang Hien) tries to hide that he even lives there, but when he fights Hai with various tools around the garage she begs him to stop. Then when Hai turns the tables she has to beg her to spare her son. Life is a violent clash between protecting what you care about and having the morality not to trample other people along the way. They’re kinda in the same boat – both ex-criminals trying to stay clean and take care of their loved ones – but they’re beating the shit out of each other. It’s only interrupted by mothers having sympathy for other mothers.
Hai’s fight to save her daughter forces her to face an estranged brother (Long Thach Kim) who hates her for leaving the family to be with her gangster boyfriend and for not returning for their parents’ funeral. She tearfully admits her mistakes and says that giving birth to Mai was the only right thing she ever did. The depth of the character makes this emotional stuff way more resonant with me than in your standard kidnapped-daughter movie, and yet we also get all the good action shit. For example we hear about a scary criminal named Thanh Wolf (Thanh Hoa), and she lives up to the hype in both appearance and behavior. When Hai breaks into her office asking for her daughter Wolf nods to two dudes who pull out axes and fight Hai while their boss sits down at her desk, kicks her feet up and drinks a beer.
When it’s time for Hai vs. Wolf, Wolf holds up one finger for her men to stay out of it. In the middle of the fight she slaps Hai, casually walks to the desk, dials a contact on her phone, returns to punch Hai out and comes back to the phone just as the call has gone through.
So, Scary Female Villain is one of the action delights we are rewarded with. We also get a jumping-out-of-the-ambush where she strangles her foe with aquatic plants. We get a flashes-back-to-childhood-martial-arts-training-while-chained-underwater sequence. We get fighting-her-way-through-a-train-full-of-henchmen. And of course that goes right along with fighting on top of the train, ducking under things, hanging off the side.
And just when the final mother-daughter hospital bed conversation seems to be wrapping up on a justifiable saccharine note, we instead end on a badass zoom in as Hai looks directly into the camera to tell Mai (and us?) to “never give up!” This movie doesn’t want to put you down gently. It wants you to leave the theater (or couch) pumped.
FURIE apparently broke box office records in Vietnam, and is their selection for (newly retitled) Best International Feature Film at the Oscars this year. Director Lê Văn Kiệt has done several movies, the first one a 2006 American indie called DUST OF LIFE. Fight choreographer Kefi Abrikh doubled Luke Evans in FURIOUS 6 and did stunts in a few Besson productions (DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM, LUCY, THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS) plus JASON BOURNE and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT. Action director Yannick Ben did stunts on some of those same movies, plus GHOST IN THE SHELL and DUNKIRK, and now he’s working in Bollywood.
Ngo has co-starred in a few other action movies which have been recommended to me, like THE REBEL and CLASH. Now she seems to be trying her hand in American movies: next up for her are parts in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s THE OLD GUARD and Spike Lee’s DA 5 BLOODS.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.