Hai Phuong hurts people for a living. A debt collector in rural Can Tho, she earns her keep beating up pig farmers and street grocers who missed their payments to loan sharks.
When she fights, she fights dirty, tearing at ears and striking at joints. She’s brutal, efficient, and adaptive — she’s as deadly with a durian as with a knife. She’s feared and hated by her neighbors, but she’s used to being a pariah. After getting thrown out by her father as a teenager, she bounced around as a gang boss-and-madam in a Ho Chi Minh City club, where she learned how to defend herself and other girls from unruly patrons. After a while, though, she fled to the countryside to raise her daughter Mai (Mai Cat Vi), whose father is not revealed, in peace. Still, with no other skills than a high pain threshold, she fell back into old ways. If Phuong resents her lot in life, she doesn’t show it. She’ll do whatever she can to make sure Mai gets the future she never had.
So when Mai gets abducted by an organ-harvesting ring, she’ll learn just how far she’ll go to ensure that future — even if it means sacrificing her own life.
Le Van Kiet’s Furie might masquerade as an action movie, but like the best of the genre it hides deeper ideas and emotions beneath all the kicking and punching. Here, the subtexts are twofold: The cost of personal redemption and the self-sacrificial demands of motherhood. Phuong (Veronica Ngo) spends the second and third acts revisiting the Ho Chi Minh City ghettos and sex clubs she once inhabited, encountering past ghosts and doing two-fisted penance for her sins. Lackeys of a rival gang boss attack and almost kill her; her brother browbeats and shames her for leaving and missing their parents’ funerals. She’s shot, stabbed, and almost drowned, but through it all she is propelled by a psychotic inner drive to do right by her missing daughter and furious acquaintances. It’s emotionally bruising, if irritatingly predictable. The plot follows story beats that were exhausted even by the 1980s’ standards when heavyweight lugs like Arnold Schwarzenegger were making their own parent-seeks-child action extravaganzas — case in point the triumphantly silly (and triumphantly entertaining) Commando.
If there’s one surprise, it’s the out-of-nowhere addition of a secondary hero in the third act, a Detective Luong (Phan Thanh Nhien) who has been investigating the kidnapping ring for years. His presence feels particularly baffling for a film so heavily invested in exploring maternal bonds, and his contributions to the climax are sure to raise the eyebrows of diligent feminist filmgoers.
But Furie is one of the rare, authentic cinematic examples where execution trumps originality. The fighting, centered around the native Vovinam and overseen by Kefi Abrikh and Yannick Ben Haddou, is marvelous. Kiet’s use of handheld cameras allows the frame to dip and whip along with the action’s kinetic flow, and viewers stupefied by the incessant, from-the-school-of-Olivier Megaton micro-editing will find that the film cuts less often than they think. Kiet also has an eye for thrilling set pieces — the most exciting being a chase scene at the end of the first act that begins on foot, then on bikes, then on boats and back on bikes.
Equally thrilling is Kiet’s embrace of colors. Unlike most action films which pretend colors only come in two types — dull, washed-out buildings and fluorescent orange explosions — Kiet and d.p. Christopher Morgan Schmidt fills every corner of the screen with the tropical greens and yellows, the alleyways’ neon-red and the city streets’ lashes of xenon purple. Where Furie fails as an original story, it succeeds as a fetching bit of cinema to be oohed and aahed over.