You’ve probably seen Veronica Ngo (Ngô Thanh Vân) on the big screen before but didn’t realize it. Her biggest role was in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. She played Rose’s sister, who dies in the bombing run that opens the film. While her death is heroic, Ngo doesn’t get to display her full talents. Until recently, I had no idea that Ngo was a martial arts star and singer in her native Vietnam.
In some ways, Ngo in The Last Jedi reminds me of Donnie Yen’s appearance in Blade II. Here is a great action hero, but if you aren’t familiar with the rest of their filmography, you simply wouldn’t know it. If only they had a chance to cut loose for American audiences. It is a little ironic to me that Yen finally got his shot in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; for Ngo, her recent starring vehicle has opened theatrically in the US just a week after it opened in Vietnam.
The release of Furie is going to be a great excuse for people to explore Ngo’s back catalogue. Watching clips from her breakout 2007 film The Rebel (Dòng Máu Anh Hùng) makes me extremely excited to do a career deep dive. She’s got incredible presence and physicality whenever she’s on screen, and it’s enough to overcome the boilerplate material around her.
Furie (Hai Phuong)
Director: Lê VÄƒn Kiá»‡t
Release Date: March 1, 2019 (limited)
Furie is built on the utilitarian chassis of a kidnapping plot.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a child is kidnapped and their parent will stop at nothing to get them back. Fortunately, the parent has a very particular set of skills. Brutality ensues. Furie has a few of its own flourishes that help it transcend the label of “Taken but a Vietnamese woman.” There’s a heavy emphasis on class and reputation throughout the film, which gives the whole story the flavor of a moralizing melodrama. Mostly, though, it’s Ngo herself who makes the movie watchable.
Ngo plays Hai Phuong, a single mother with a shady past as a gangster. While she gave up her criminal life to raise her daughter, she still roughs people up as a debt collector to make ends meet. When her child is abducted, she spends the remainder of the film trying to figure who’s got her, what they’re up to, and how she can stop it. The main plot of Furie unfolds over the course of a single day. The ticking clock scenario helps propel the film from the 20-minute mark onwards. It conveys the sense of urgency a parent would really feel if their own child was abducted.
Since I have zero familiarity with Vietnamese action movies, I found myself thinking of the action in terms of martial arts films from other countries. The fights in Furie are shot and choreographed a lot like Gareth Evans’ The Raid and The Raid 2. The moves have impact and are brutal, with an emphasis on elbow strikes and grapples. It looks like fight choreographer Kefi Abrikh built the brawls around a hybrid of MMA and Vovinam. Ngo moves with speed and power, selling the impact of the blows she delivers as well as the ones she receives. All the while, Lê VÄƒn Kiá»‡t keeps his camera competently trained on the action. The camera wobbles and moves a bit too much for my taste in an early fight at a market place and subsequent chase, but it stabilizes for later action sequences.
Even though most of the action is reminiscent of The Raid, I did sense the inescapable hint of Hong Kong action filmmaking creeping up now and then. The fights have occasionally ornate moments that almost feel like a Jackie Chan flourish: Hai uses a durian as a weapon; a rapid, intense grappling exchange over a work table in a garage feels like a Chan-esque scramble for improvised weapons.
Some of that Hong Kong flavor may have also bled into the script. The moral melodrama of a mother coming to terms with her responsibilities to her daughter seem at odds with a story about human trafficking and organ harvesting. Later in the film, there’s a bit of odd-but-somehow-not-out-of-place slapstick that reminded me of something I’d see in a Cantonese action movie. There’s even a supercop character who might have been the lead in another movie but here in Furie is just a supporting ass-kicker.
Thankfully it’s Ngo in the lead rather than some noble babyface guy. Her performance is solid and her fighting skills have a sense of weight. There’ve been times watching fight scenes in other movies where I thought “That punch didn’t look like it would hurt” or “They weren’t moving fast enough to make that seem like a substantial blow.” That’s not the case with Ngo. Her moves have momentum, and I think a lot of that has to do with her performance in and out of fight scenes. There is no division between being an actress and a martial artist since Ngo’s moves are justified by Ngo’s acting choices in character. Fights tell stories, and every punch and kick and head-scissor takedown she performs has emotional content.
There’s so much in the zeitgeist that’s calling for women as action heroes and action leads. Even the movie’s “boss fight bad guy” is a woman. The final hand-to-hand showdown features such an incredibly cool extended-combo of fight choreography that I rewatched it several times, smiling and nodding in admiration.
The Vietnamese title for Furie is simply Hai Phuong, the name of the main character. In my mind, the title puts Hai Phuong in good company with other action heroes. I wonder if Hai Phuong in Vietnamese has the same ring to it as Cleopatra Jones or Foxy Brown. More than that, I just hope Ngo continues to star in more ass-kickers and that her earlier martial arts movies wind up on streaming services in the very near future.