Content Warning: Sexual assault and violence against women are heavy visual and narrative themes throughout the film.
Actor Ngô Thanh Vân has been working for nearly two decades across genres and countries. She’s known more widely in the U.S. by the stage name Veronica Ngo — Mantis in 2016’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Rose Tico’s sister Paige in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), Hanoi Hannah in Da 5 Bloods (2020), Quynh in 2020’s The Old Guard (and its upcoming sequel), and Linh in 2022’s The Princess. What I consider my introduction to her is in Lê Văn Kiệt’s (The Princess) 2019 film Furie (Hai Phượng), in which Ngo played a former gang leader who must return to her old stomping grounds in order to save her daughter from a ring of child smugglers and organ harvesters. That film rules for several reasons and most of it falls on Ngo who must balance the physical rigors of the action with the emotional in order for the action drama to pull in its audience beyond the spectacle. Years later, Ngo returns to the world of Furie not just as an actor and producer, but also as co-story/screenplay creator and director in Furies (Thanh Sói: Cúc Dại Trong Đêm) (2022), a prequel story that’s about as opposite as it gets from the first film. It’s more raw, unpolished, and brutal than the former, resulting in an exploration of the darkness that consumes those without the strength or support to move toward the light.
After being the lone survivor of assault, country girl Bi (Đồng Ánh Quỳnh) travels to Saigon in hopes of starting over. What she finds is a world more ruthless than the one she escaped. That is, until she meets Jacqueline (Ngo) who recruits her as part of a girl gang set on taking out drug maker/prostitution organizer/gang leader Hải (Thuận Nguyễn) and preventing him and his three henchmen from expanding their territory and terrorizing more women. Given shelter, protection, and purpose, Bi becomes stronger than ever, determined to ensure that no one will ever hurt her again. Bi and her fellow sisters in arms will be victims no more.
For those who haven’t seen Furie yet and are interested in checking out Furies, you don’t need to have seen the previous film to understand this one. They take place in the same world, but Ngo does not take on the double duty of playing Jacqueline (called Lin by most in the film) and an early version of gang leader Hai Phượng, as that character isn’t relevant to the story. There’s an element of the film which does take on greater significance and gives Furies a sharp edge in terms of tone and intention that one won’t take in or realize without having seen the first film, but one wouldn’t necessarily engage with the film any differently without it. Watching the films in chronological order by narrative events, however, would be striking, I think, for reasons that I can’t get into here in order to keep things spoiler-free.
What can be discussed is that the material is vicious from start to finish in its exploration of Bi as a person who’s unsure where they fit in the world. Even before violence enters her life, Bi ponders what makes her different. It’s only when first blood is drawn that she starts to realize something about herself that makes her a survivor of a different sort. Quỳnh (YOLO the Movie) has the double task of carrying the emotional portion of the narrative while also being the action’s center (an intense ask for any actor in their second film) and she handles it with ease. We believe in Bi’s uncertainty in who to trust, her constant desire to build support, and the weight of her untreated trauma. It’s not that Bi is somehow more broken than the other characters (fellow girl gang members we’ll dub “furies” Hồng (Rima Thanh Vy) and Thanh (Tóc Tiên) have seen their fair share of horrors in their brief lives), it’s that she has been provided no mechanism to cope or to retain hope. As the audience’s entry point and guide through the story, Quỳnh’s unenviable task is delicately managed as we witness her transformation from easy target to deadly weapon. For their part, Thanh Vy (11 Hopes) and Tóc Tiên (Già Gân, Mỹ Nhân Và Găng Tơ) bring a balance to the film that Quỳnh can’t manage on her own. This is a non-traditional hero’s tale, so Thanh Vy and Tóc Tiên present characters who have been through the wringer like her and have come through it mostly intact with Thanh Vy’s Hồng still in possession of her sweet and silly side, while Tóc Tiên’s Thanh portrays a bad ass with the kind of vulnerability that echoes Ngo’s Hai. These are the aspects of Bi that she’s missing, the aspects of Hồng and Thanh that they worked so hard to shake off, creating a sense that, through them, Bi can become someone who harnesses their darkness for a great purpose.
Interest, by contrast to Furie, the script by Ngo, Aaron Toronto, Nguyễn Trường Nhân, Lý Nguyễn Nhã Uyên, and Nguyễn Ngọc Thạch is purposefully dark, intending to challenge the characters with the reality of their world. To paraphrase Lin, they will remain a victim unless they are stronger than any attacker. As director, Ngo often uses overhead shots to reinforce this feeling by creating the sensation that the characters are being looked down upon by some higher being, bolstering the distance between the events on the ground and the audience. However, the narrative doesn’t want distance, so Ngo then brings things back, putting the audience in as much of the shit with Bi and her team as possible. Action fans will no doubt delight in the various fisticuffs, especially in three key fighting sequences which enable each of the three furies to highlight why they’re as much of a threat to Hải’s operation as Lin hopes. But this film isn’t just a clear-cut white vs. black tale of redemption that one expects, especially coming off of Furie. Where this script goes is murkier, existing in the grey of life in a way that may put off audiences by the end.
A larger issue with the film is its general imbalance action presentation and tone. Largely, the film invites the audience to lean in when it comes to the action. No question that this film was shot by someone with stunt experience, making sure that the main characters not only look capable of pulling off the feats of violence necessary, but that the actors themselves do to. This means long takes, editing that moves with the motion, and using a few stylized tricks to up the emotional quotient. But then there’s an elongated motorbike sequence (shown in the trailer) that’s hardly believable in the slightest. As there are no press materials to explore, it’s unclear if the decision to shoot the sequence in what appears to be actors on still vehicles against a green screen is a result of budgetary constraints or some other issue, but when audiences have a bad ass practical sequence as recently as 2017’s The Villainess, one wonders why that couldn’t be achieved here. (By the by, don’t come for me with John Wick: Chapter 3 as their version is an homage to Villainess.) Having seen Ngo’s work in several other films and the reliance on practicality, what should be an exciting and tense sequence tends to feel more like a poorly rendered cut scene in a video game with the actors on locked vehicles moving on some kind of pulley system against a green screen so that they can perform the necessary stuntwork without the issue of serious injury. Then there’s the tonal aspects of the film and the use of music. As for tone, so much of the film leans on Bi’s unresolved internal conflict and the push-pull relationship she has with violence, yet there are many sequences that are tonal dark but light in music or presentation, as though the punk rock vibe or comedic acts of a character make up for the fact that we’re being shown women in the process of being assaulted or worse. I’m not talking about interpersonal moments where the characters can be, you know, human with each other. Those moments are endearing and bittersweet within the context of the film. But if Furies is about the rise of vengeful warriors born out of fire and blood. The odd inclusion of levity in some places renders the tension inert.
Though unnecessary for their individual enjoyment, if one considers the two films as one, then Furies and Furie are an exploration of choice: what does one do with the rage inside? Do you stamp it down or feed it? Viewed in this way, Furies is an intriguing watch, offering more than badass women taking back a measure of what was stolen. It’s not as dazzling or inventive as the first film, but, in telling its own story, it carves its own path. More than that, the viciousness, the brutality of Furies is less sequelitis and far more specific and in line with the narrative being explored. If you can get behind that, buckle up.
Per the film: if you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, information and resources are available at https://www.wannatalkaboutit.com/.
Major hat tip to fellow critic Nguyên Lê for assisting in finalizing this review with his cultural insight and additional edits.
Available on Netflix March 23rd, 2023.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
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