'Furie' ('Hai Phuong'): Film Review

Furie Still 3- Udine Far East Film Festival - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Udine Far East Film Festival
Brings new meaning to the "tiger mom" cliche.

Vietnamese superstar Veronica Ngo headlines as a mother looking for her kidnapped daughter in genre maestro Le-Van Kiet’s latest crime thriller.

Another kidnapped child, another parent on a quest for revenge and/or justice. This time around the parent in question is a struggling Vietnamese single mom in writer-director Le-Van Kiet's Furie, a modest but engagingly familiar actioner that has just a fresh enough point of view to make it worth a look for fight fans. The film is the perfect choice to close out the Udine Far East Film Festival this year for its ideal mix of fisticuffs, a wholly watchable lead, and being a selection from a country we see too little from outside Asia.

Furie follows a similar pattern to Kiet's 2016 crime drama The Rich Woman — child is abducted, woman faces down enemy to get child back — and is very much in line with Kiet's drift toward genre material after starting his career with the more thoughtful coming-of-age drama Dust of Life. Reuniting with Veronica Ngo (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Kiet puts an aggressively maternal spin on some tired material and winds up with a moderately juiced diversion, with a great deal of the credit for that going to Ngo. The corny closing frames (including the end credit scroll) give Furie a distinct television vibe, partially undoing its more cinematic preceding elements, but this is a minor quibble considering that it will probably work best on a smaller screen, and will likely find its broadest audience via streaming. Nonetheless, Furie will find some life on the genre festival circuit.

Shot in luscious primary colors and vibrant neon, and exploiting Vietnam’s natural beauty and evocative locations, Furie has the technical polish needed to play on those big fest screens, and indeed it looks as sharp as anything from South Korea or Hong Kong at those movie industries' peaks. The story begins in southern Can Tho, with Hai Phuong (Ngo) rousting locals who are delinquent on their payments on behalf of the loan shark she works for to support herself and her daughter, Mai (Cat Vi). She busts kneecaps and asks for excuses later, and combined with her mysterious single-parent status, it makes her something of a pariah in the community. It goes without saying that one day she bashes up someone from her past, which comes back to haunt her when Mai is kidnapped and put on the literal chopping block for black market organ dealers. After a protracted motorbike chase along the river, it's off to the mean streets of Ho Chi Minh City to get Mai back and reconcile her own demons.

Furie certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, coming as it does in the wake of a mini-renaissance in the mom-on-the-rampage subgenre coming out of Asia (Mrs K from Hong Kong, South Korea’s Don’t Cry, Mommy, India's Ajji and so on). But it does up the female POV considerably. Hai Phuong's most significant connections — and confrontations — involve other women. Her first stop in HCMC is the nightclub where she used to work as a hostess, to see an old colleague who has moved up in the ranks. When she tracks down a gangster and ex-con who may know where Mai is headed, it's his mother's pleas that prevent Hai Phuong from murdering him; she empathizes with the woman's drive to protect her child. A female nurse bends the rules to help the search. Hai Phuong's biggest challenge on the fight front comes from the equally driven, laser-focused Thanh Soi, the woman at the head of the trafficking ring and something of a Terminator, played by a suitably imposing Thanh Hoa — more of her, please.

The men in Hai Phuong’s life are reduced to footnotes: The hotshot HCMC cop, Luong (Phan Thanh Nhien), who's investigating the trafficking ring is consistently two steps behind; her petty brother won't let her forget her youthful indiscretions; and the backstory that led her to a rural life with her daughter barely acknowledges Mai's father’s existence. It doesn't necessarily make for complete storytelling or characterization, but it has a clear point of view. And Ngo more than makes up for any shortcomings with a fiery, stoic, desperate and poised performance that balances badassery with vulnerability. It's her movie to lose.

Tech specs are strong, with rich photography by Christopher Morgan Schmidt and totally respectable close-quarters fight choreography by Samuel Kefi Abrikh and action direction from Yannick Ben and Anh Tuan Nguyen.

Production company: Studio 68
U.S. distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Veronica Ngo, Phan Thanh Nhien, Cat Vi, Thanh Hoa, Pham Anh Khoa
Director: Le-Van Kiet
Screenwriter: Le-Van Kiet
Producers: Ngo Thanh Van, Tran Buu Loc
Executive producers: Ngo Thanh Van, Pham Tan Nghia, Thai Ba Dung, Pham Thanh Hai, Gary Hamilton, Ryan Hamilton, Ying Ye, Bey Logan
Director of photography: Christopher Morgan Schmidt
Production designer: Nguyen Minh Duong
Editor: Quyen Ngo
Music: Nguyen Hoang Anh
World sales: Netflix

In Vietnamese
98 minutes