EXPECTATIONS: Tôi hy vọng bộ phim này sẽ hay (I hope this film will be good).
REVIEW: It’s about damn time that I have a chance to review a Vietnamese film. As you may or may not know, I am Vietnamese and proud of it. It does not make me an expert on Vietnamese cinema, but it is refreshing for me to see films spoken in my own native tongue that it brings a layer of familiarity and intimacy that other films can’t provide.
The films that I’ve seen over the years tend to skew towards examples that catered to international audiences or festival crowds like the films of Tran Anh Hung (Cyclo, The Scent of the Green Papaya, The Vertical Ray of the Sun and others) or films that were shot in Vietnam like The Quiet American, Three Seasons and Kong: Skull Island.
But what I noticed is the rise of commercial/mainstream cinema in Vietnam. Ever since 2007, films that aimed for more genre fare have gained recognition around the world. The first of those films that got my attention was The Rebel, a martial arts action flick that exhilarated audiences with the high quality of stunts, charismatic actors and kick-ass action.
12 years later, we have Veronica Ngo (Ngo Thanh Van), the female lead of The Rebel headlining her own solo action film, Furie. Playing female leads in native action films like Clash as well as her American ventures like Bright, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, she is back in the game in what is said to be her final hurrah in action films. Will she get out on a high (kick)?
Veronica Ngo stars as Hai Phuong (the titular role of the Vietnamese film title of the same name), a struggling single mother who works as a debt collector to make ends meet. Due to the nature of her job, she is seen as an outcast in the community, which affects her young daughter Mai (Cat Vi), making her a victim of bullying at school.
During an uproar in her village due to a major misunderstanding, Mai is kidnapped by a bunch of thugs who are more than meets the eye. Desperate and increasingly indomitable, Hai Phuong sets off on her trail, which leads her back to the bustling city of Saigon, bringing back repressed past memories of her life as a gangster, with only a lone cop (Phan Thanh Nhien, who provides some martial arts skills) to help her.
As one can see from the synopsis, the story is absolutely nothing new. The script (credited to Le Van Kiet, A Type Machine and Nguyen Truong Nhan) that follows the “parent searching for child” formula is like a functional piece of furniture. It’s well-made, stands up correctly, achieves its true purpose, yet there’s nothing really special about it. But what the film lacks in originality, it makes up for in conviction.
As for the negatives, the script can be quite contrived at times. Hai Phuong would often stumble into clues, rather than sheer investigation. At some points, she would look around in the city and the suspects in question would be visible just in plain sight. Also, as the formula goes, there’s the frequent (yet no less ridiculous) script contrivance where characters just happen to know the exact amount of time where the kidnap victim will be never seen again. Where does that number come from?
The storytelling can be a bit rote, with the cheesy and repetitious flashbacks (particularly those involving Hai Phuong’s father) and the general predictability of it all. But the bottom line is this: Who watches these types of films for the story? People watch these films for the action scenes. In the case of Furie, how do they fare?
The stunts and fight choreography formulated by Yannick Ben, Anh Tuan Nguyen, Team X and Samuel Kefi Abrikh (whom some of these have worked on Hollywood productions), and they have done a great job in providing the thrills that one would savour.
The fight scenes (despite lacking invention and implementing some sloppy green-screen in the finale) are beautifully executed, with lots of brutal impact captured in long shots (shot in a distinctively creepy and tactile Giallo-esque way by DOP Christopher Morgan Schmidt) and fluid editing (edited by Quyen Ngo), that do not shy away from all the pain the heroine goes through. None of the fights are one-sided and they always present Hai Phuong with a disadvantage (like being stabbed with a screwdriver or being hit with an oar before the action scene starts) and it pays off brilliantly, coinciding with the standard, yet well-executed character arc Ngo tackles.
But the fight scenes themselves cannot guarantee audience satisfaction on their own. A good build-up (even in a predictable story such as this) can provide the perfect entrance to having emotional investment and Furie thankfully nails it. The first act builds the relationship betwen Hai Phuong and Mai and both Veronica Ngo and talented child actress Cat Vi do a great job in presenting a loving, troubled yet endearing and believable mother-daughter relationship.
And last but definitely not the least, an engaging hero (or in this case, heroine) will guarantee audience immersion and Veronica Ngo is an engaging heroine. Having played roles like this over the past decade, Ngo still has a strikingly fierce presence and handles the fight scenes like a pro. She is instantly believable in the part (from the rebellious side to the maternal side) and inspires sympathy with her confident acting chops; particularly during a scene where she confronts her past through her estranged brother.
Overall, Furie is a fantastic action showcase that while it may have a simplistic and predictable story, it is compensated with a well-executed emotional build-up, a heartfelt mother-and-daughter relationship, fantastic action sequences and an engaging lead turn by Veronica Ngo. Recommended.
Cast: Veronica Ngo, Cat Vi, Phan Thanh Nhien, Thanh Hoa, Pham Anh Khoa
Director: Le Van Kiet
Screenwriters: Le Van Kiet, A Type Machine and Nguyen Truong Nhan