Despite being in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi, and Bright, American audiences still haven’t caught on to the talent that is Ngo Thanh Van, known in the U.S. as Veronica Ngo. This is all about to change thanks to co-directors Ngo and Le Van Kiet’s upcoming crime drama, Furie (Hai Phuong), in which Ngo plays a mother whose child is kidnapped by traffickers. That alone is a terrifying premise that is likely to grab any audience member’s attention, but there’s a twist: Ngo plays a former Saigon-based gang leader on the run from her past. Suddenly, the tone shifts, opening the door for Kiet’s film to become a Vietnamese Taken. Thankfully, the havoc isn’t anywhere near as explosive or excessive as the Liam Nesson-led, oft-quoted, 2008 film; instead, Kiet manages to pour on the tension without succumbing to nonsensical escalation, keeping the whole of Furie feeling personal and intimate.
Le Huynh Ngoc Phuong (Ngo), known as Hai to her friends and family, attempts to live a quiet life in the country, far from the bustle of Saigon. In order to ensure that her daughter, Mai (Mai Cat Vi), can continue to go to school, Hai works as a debt collector. During an incident in the food market where Mai needs to run off without Hai, some goons think they have an easy target and take off after throwing Mai into their boat. Despite a valiant effort, Hai is unable to stop the kidnappers, but does find out they are headed straight for Saigon, the last place Hai wants to go. Forced to face her past and reenter the violent world she left behind, Hai will stop at nothing to see the save return of her daughter, even if it means taking on the police and the worst gang the city has to offer.
When it comes to an action film, audiences are looking for a tight experience. They want an easy set-up that moves them straight into the conflict and doesn’t stop until the credit roll. Now, Furie isn’t exactly this, which is great because audiences don’t often enjoy the thing they think they want. While Furie does fire on all cylinders for the bulk of the film, Kiet understands that without emotional investment, the audience is one punch, one kick, away from losing interest. The best example of this in modern cinema is John Wick: Chapter One versus John Wick: Chapter Two. The first film is a push-pull of emotional investment, action, and rest, all with a razor-sharp purpose. The sequel, however, spends so much time world building, that, to compensate, the action sequences border on endless. There’s a balance which much be struck and Kiet nails it. The film opens with Hai on the job, so audiences get a sense of her personality and fighting acumen. Then, it smoothly moves into her personal values before introducing her daughter and then gives us one of two flashbacks which flesh out Hai throughout the film. Then, just after the two characters forming the heart of Furie develop their interpersonal conflict, boom! The central premise of Furie begins and we’re off. Even when Furie slows down, either due to introducing characters, inserting additional emotional beats, or just giving Hai time to lick her wounds between bouts, it is to serve the story while still preserving forward momentum.
But it is an action film and is one in which almost all of the advertising is centered on Ngo kicking ass and taking names. The way Kiet films the scenes, you’d almost never know that each of the central characters has a stunt person. Each scene feels staged to enhance the perception of actor involvement and is shot so that the audience feels as though they are in the middle of it all. Forget the hurried shaky cam of most American action films. Kiet’s direction seems to flow on a wire, moving in time with the action so as to keep all movements visually clear, the action intense, and the audience at its center. As such, each fight sequence feels like something out of a Jackie Chan film, not in the sense of incredible feats of human endurance, but in maintaining the perception of authenticity. Direction, of course, is only part of an excellently staged fight scene, with the other part being in the hands of the fight choreographer. If you’ve seen Dunkirk, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Spectre, or District 13: Ultimatum, then you’re familiar with Samuel Kefi Abrikh’s work and know how visceral it can be. If the audience doesn’t let out at least one audible “Ooof” during Furie (and you will), then his work wasn’t executed to plan. In particular, when Hai crosses paths with the film’s version of the Big Bad, a female gangster known as Nu Quai (Thanh Hoa), there’s a moment so badass that you’d think the film ends there. Instead, Kiet and Abrikh save a sequence for last which will leave you hoping Ngo appears as a special guest in John Wick: Chapter Three.
Complementing the heartfelt narrative and physicality of the fight scenes is some truly beautiful cinematography from Christopher Morgan Schmidt and production design from Nguyen Minh Duong. Between the two of them, a clear delineation between the countryside and Saigon is made. In the country, the colors are robust: vibrant greens, cool blues, and bright yellows. In the city, the colors are vibrant: royal purples, neon green, and luminous blues. Not only does it establish a tone for each location, but it inserts a noir-like aspect to everything in Saigon. Hai believes herself beyond saving with a past full of terrible choices and her world reflects it. Brilliantly, Hai’s outfit never changes once the abduction takes place, yet it seems to morph depending on which light hits it. Intentionally or not, it seems to suggest Hai’s adaptability in any circumstance, which is something the audience becomes privy too rather quickly. Though not an aspect attributed to the look or design of Furie, it’s also worth mentioning that unlike her action hero counterparts, Hai’s wounds are largely handled in a realistic fashion. Welts form, cuts bleed, and her abilities only go but so long before she’s exhausted. The best comparison to another cinematic badass is Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) in 2017’s Atomic Blonde, which saw Broughton take on wave after wave of fighters, yet whose humanity shown through. In this same way, Hai’s ferocity is merely set-dressing for her inherent humanity, an aspect which makes Hai someone to root for.
At the end of the day, most audiences just want to be entertained. That’s a solid metric and, with most films, that’s the perfect way to look at cinema. In this sense, Furie absolutely delivers the goods. Kiet’s script is focused, the action is intense, and Ngo delivers the performance necessary to anchor the whole experience. Nothing about the film feels manufactured or hyped: not the intelligence of the characters, not the reactions from the police, not the somehow superhuman physical ability of near everyone Hai takes on. By grounding Furie, the losses are undeniably heartrending and the wins are deliciously victorious.
In select theaters March 1st, 2019. For more information on cities and locations, head to the Furie official website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.