FURIES (Thanh Sói) is a great new Vietnamese action movie on Netflix as of last Thursday, and it’s a prequel to FURIE (2019). On one hand I want to be clear that not having seen FURIE would hardly affect your viewing of FURIES – it’s just an origin story for one of the supporting characters, and you don’t even know for sure which one until the end (it’s kinda like LEATHERFACE in that sense). On the other hand, FURIE is fuckin great, so you should definitely watch it. But I really don’t think the order matters.
FURIE starred Ngô Thanh Vân a.k.a. Veronica Ngo in a knockout performance as a rural debt collector who has to venture into the city when her daughter is kidnapped – and it turns out that when her daughter was born she ran from a life there as a gangster, which is why she knows the ins and outs of this underworld, as well as how to kick 75 different types of ass. For FURIES, Ngo takes over as director, as well as having a supporting role in the movie. As a totally different character! It’s weird.
The tone is pretty different, and quite distinct. I should warn that there’s a horrific (though thankfully quick and not graphic) scene right at the beginning, before the credits, where a young girl named Bi is assaulted by a customer of her prostitute mother, and then they have a brutal fight with him. Bi is left orphaned, living on the streets. There’s a CONAN THE BARBARIAN type aging montage except she’s selling banh mis and pickpocketing instead of pushing a big wheel. Then, as an adult (Dong Anh Quynh, YOLO THE MOVIE), she’s about to be assaulted again when a foot flies in and kicks the shit out of the perpetrators.
The foot belongs to Jacqueline, a.k.a. Aunt Lin, a fierce and proper looking lady played by Ngo. She brings Bi to eat at the noodle stand owned by Sau (who I think is her mother-in-law?), but Bi barely talks. “What’s your name?” Sau asks. “Hey, what do people call you?”
“Whore,” she says matter of factly, chewing her noodles.
Aunt Lin takes Bi home to live with two other formerly homeless young women, Hong (Rima Thanh Vy, MUOI: THE CURSE RETURNS) and Thanh (pop star Toc Tien). At first they reject her. They’re very fashionable – Hong is kinda Baby Spice, Thanh is kinda Joan Jett – but she looks feral, so they give her a makeover. She decides her trademark is a pink windbreaker tracksuit.
Aunt Lin trains them to fight, and makes them practice on each other, because “If you don’t want men to push you around, be stronger than them.” When Bi comes back from a serious beating, rams Thanh so hard against a pillar that a metal grate breaks out of the ceiling, but rolls her out of the way so as not to be crushed, they all become friends. More like family, they soon decide.
Aunt Lin is pretty straightforward, it seems, about what the deal is here. They’re all rape or sex trafficking survivors, and they’re going to change the world. Their mission is to take out three local gangsters who run all the brothels, the last and worst being Hai (Thuan Nguyen, LIKE AN OLD HOUSE). There’s only one male in this entire movie who’s on their side (Song Luan, THE HOUSE OF NO MAN), and he actually works for Hai, but he’s in love with Hong and helping them from the inside to atone for his many sins. He’s a tragic figure because his well-meaning attempts to make things not-as-bad from within the gang are doomed to failure and end in the most personally painful manner possible.
I think it’s kinda subversive how this bluntness about the omnipresence of “depraved men” and the need to end them contrasts with Ngo’s playful, almost CHARLIE’S ANGELS visual style, using all kinds of speed ramping, zooms, split screens, costume changes, quick cuts, an upbeat (at times cheesy in my opinion) rock ’n roll (or at one point disco) soundtrack. I like how the traffickers get a Guy Ritchie-esque cool guy intro even though she’s been very clear they’re as uncool as it gets. Unreliable cinematic style.
I suspect the specific crimes being avenged here make FURIES too harsh to catch on in the same way as some of these, but it feels like a cousin to THE RAID 2, THE NIGHT COMES FOR US and THE VILLAINESS – stylish, unrelentingly violent martial arts crime sagas that make most western attempts at the genre (except the JOHN WICK saga) seem tame and lazy by comparison. Their biggest advantage is having the time and infrastructure for far more elaborate action sequences (with returning action director Kefi Abrikh), but they also put more emphasis on visuals than many of ours do. Ngo and new cinematographer Phunam adopt the texture-steam-and-neon look of the first film, and production designer Nguyen Minh Duong (THE TAILOR) creates labyrinthine sets where the camera can hover above even the narrowest hallway or move from room to room, De Palma style. I can enjoy action movies set in the same old warehouses and loading docks and shit, but man it’s great when they get to create a whole world like this. I really can’t tell if some of Ho Chi Minh City is on location, or if it’s all soundstage, but it’s all of a piece. A crowded, cluttered but candy-colored urban landscape wrapped around gaudy, opulent sex clubs where fights can take place in a hallway that looks like this:
A standout scene that some people won’t like due to anti-visual-effects puritanism is the quasi-oner motorcycle chase, which we gotta assume is inspired by that classic scene in THE VILLAINESS, using all kinds of impossible camera moves around multiple supposedly-moving-at-high-speed bikes as their riders battle each other. It looks more artificial than the one in THE VILLAINESS, but that gives it its own sense of style. It actually reminds me of the speeder bike chase in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Then the last stretch stitches together a bunch of actual motorcycle stunt work, so you get it both ways. And I like that all this comes at a very emotional point in the movie, and is mostly set to a ballad that sounds like Vietnamese Bonnie Tyler.
I don’t care how liberally they’re partaking in movie magic – if you can’t get a thrill from the part where Bi gets punched off the bike and seconds later comes fucking flying in to nail a guy with a kick like she’s in Mortal Kombat or something…
…then you are depriving yourself of joy, which is the food your soul needs to live. No disrespect to realism, but let’s be real, here… realism can get fucked. Nobody likes you, realism, so go away. Do not call, do not write, do not visit. I told you never to contact me here. Seriously man, you and me, we’re fucking done professionally.
Anyway the action is brutal, furious, and voluminous. An endless army of seedy sickos get absolutely pummeled, smashed, slashed and crushed. Every possible piece of furniture, tool or structure is broken by or on somebody’s flesh and bones. The camera glides, twirls and tilts like a dance partner to our trio of female avengers. As in THE PRINCESS, Ngo plays the mentor but does eventually get in on the action.
In a crucial scene, gorgeous day-glo blood sprays in slow motion in front of Bi’s blue-lit face, like a cool pop art silk screen or blacklight poster. Everything calms down for a moment after she completes her first assassination and stands, staring at the blood on her palms, something she continues a minute later as they escape the exploding building on a motorcycle. At home, an ANGST or Spike Lee style camera-attached-to-her-head shot studies her face as she stumbles into the bathroom to puke.
The FURIE/FURIES action/emotion combo is best illustrated when Thanh comes in to check on Bi, who flips out and starts fighting her. Thanh does her best to defend herself without hurting Bi while screaming “Bi, it’s me!” and finally getting through to her by drenching her in cold shower water and embracing her as she calms down. It’s an intensely moving scene but also full of cool shit like the overhead shot of Bi pushing Thanh into the shower, ripping off the curtain and then Thanh turning around and kicking her away.
Later, Bi admits that what was freaking her out was not the guilt of her first kill, but how much she enjoyed it.
So the glue that holds this action extravaganza together is not even Ngo’s performance and character, as great as they are – it’s that I really like her three students and their sisterly bond, helping each other with their traumatic pasts through what they don’t quite grok is a traumatic present. By the end it shifts closer to a normal organized crime power struggle type story, but I suppose that’s inevitable in a movie made to explore the underworld that FURIE was sprung from. I still came out with an attachment to these characters and a new understanding of a memorable villain from the first film. I’m happy to say I loved both of these FURIEs in different but equally powerful ways.
note: Unfortunately Bey Logan, who has been accused of things that would make him a target of these ladies in real life, is credited as a producer on this movie (possibly just because he was on the first one).
on Tuesday, March 28th, 2023 at 7:14 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Crime, Martial Arts.
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