The third feature directed by Vietnamese superstar Ngo Thanh Van — better known to western audiences as actor Veronica Ngo in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “The Old Guard” — lives up to its title with a furious display of female revenge set in the seedy streets of late-’90s Ho Chi Minh City. Despite a routine plot and some abrasive tonal shifts, this tale of a motherly mentor turning three damaged young women into deadly assassins is packed with exciting action and boasts fine performances from four killers bound by blood, bullets and all manner of deadly weapons. Following a series of rowdy screenings in SXSW’s Midnighters section, “Furies” will stream worldwide as the first Vietnamese Netflix original feature on March 23.
A gritty and often brutal action thriller, “Furies” is reminiscent in tone and texture of old-school Hong Kong heroic bloodshed epics and has a dash of the “indestructible female fighter” films starring Thai dynamo JeeJa Yanin (“Chocolate,” Raging Phoenix”). Closely associated with the steady rise of Vietnamese genre cinema since moving from a successful pop music career to star in seminal works such as Charlie Nguyen’s smash hit “The Rebel” (2006), Ngo serves as director, actor, co-writer and producer in what’s bound to become one of the most widely seen of all Vietnamese films.
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A loose prequel to Le-Van Kiet’s 2019 hit “Furie,” in which Ngo played a petty criminal attempting to save her kidnapped daughter, “Furies” takes place 15 years earlier, with Ngo cast as a different character from the earlier film. Here she’s Jacqueline (also known as Aunt Lin), a tough dame who saves country girl Bi (Dong Anh Quynh) from suffering more of the horrific sexual violence she experienced as a child and teenager in the film’s confronting opening sequences. Currently a pickpocket on the neon-drenched streets of Ho Chi Minh City’s (formerly Saigon) nightlife district, Bi is recruited by Jacqueline to join a girl gang she has formed to destroy Hai (Thuan Nguyen), a super-sleazy, sex-addicted gang boss whose empire is built on trafficking women and drugs.
Bi’s occasional voiceover narration paints a vivid picture of her deeply troubled soul. “From the moment I was born, I was destined for darkness,” she tells us. Though wary of being dragged further into violence that seems to lurk around every corner, Bi is drawn to the security and family environment offered by Jacqueline and fellow recruits Thanh (pop star Toc Tien) and Hong (Rima Thanh Vy). The well-rounded characters offer interesting points of difference and commonality with the shy and traumatized Bi. While Hong is a bubbly type who likes dressing up and doing girly things, and Thanh is a tough customer with a punk rock vibe, both have experienced the same kind of heinous sexual violence as Bi. In light of this, it’s easy for viewers to accept Bi’s decision to stay and find purpose in life with her new sisters and comrades-in-arms.
Anchored by the trio’s emotional bonding and Jacqueline’s maternal care even as she whips them into shape for deadly combat, “Furies” delivers plenty of pulse-quickening action. Ngo and action director and fight choreographer Samuel Kefi Abrikh stage their best sequences in cramped quarters such as alleyways and the narrow corridors of Hai’s nightclub hangout, where dozens of the gangster’s goons are dispatched by the trio against seemingly impossible odds. Nguyen Cong Danh’s editing is right on the money here and elsewhere, mixing rapid-fire cutting with much longer takes that allow the audience to see the whole picture and admire the fighting skills of talented cast members.
In a memorable piece of slow-motion editing during a frantic early fight, we can see the very moment when Bi’s reticence to fight is suddenly replaced by an overwhelming feeling of power and control. It’s a couple of seconds that says as much as a monologue.
Most of the mayhem is executed in great style, though some visual effects fall short of the mark. An extended chase scene involving motorcycles is all too obviously filmed with actors on machines bolted down in front of a green screen, making it look like an excerpt from an arcade game. “Furies” loses a little of its momentum and gloss with a few comic scenes that don’t mesh well with the heavy atmosphere of menace, and the villainy on display is strictly cartoonish. A late development in which Jacqueline enters the fray as a combatant may not sit well with all audiences. Though intrinsic to the plot of this revenge scenario and never used for crassly exploitative purposes, certain scenes of sexual violence may linger longer than some viewers feel is necessary.
These concerns do not detract too much from the film’s overall success as a fast-and-furious action bonanza that’s stylishly filmed in a riot of primary colors by DP Phu Nam. The rock guitar-dominated original score by Nguyen Hoang Anh is fine if a tad generic, and the soundtrack is given a nice boost by songs from renowned female singer Phuong Tranh, veteran pop star Dan Truong and co-star Toc Tien. Also noteworthy is Na Bong Chua’s excellent costume design which includes an eye-catching pink jump suit as Bi’s distinctly personal choice of combat fatigue.
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