After Liam Neeson gets his daughter back when she’s taken in Taken (Morel, 2008), and Nicolas Cage gets his daughter home after she’s stolen in Stolen (West, 2012), you might wonder why mothers don’t do anything to save their children. Women just seem to leave it all up to their jaded male counterparts to threaten and beat up anyone who stands between them and their kidnapped progeny. The middle-aged dads get to re-establish their fading virility while reconnecting with their family, who they’ve always neglected, usually through working or drinking too much, or sometimes both. It’s a lazy narrative for an easily digestible action movie, where there are clearly marked lines and the violence is justifiable to even the most faint-hearted of audiences. Anyone who might be on the fence, or even actively against eye-gouging, neck breaking or genital mutilation, can usually be convinced of its reasonable inclusion as soon as anyone under the age of 18 is in any physical danger. And especially if the victim is a defenceless girl.
On the back of all these redemption-through-getting-back-kidnapped-children films comes Furie, a 2019 Vietnamese production for Netflix directed by Le-Van Kiet. The only major difference here is that the parent involved is a mother on a mission, rather than the archetypal man. Veronica Ngo, riding the wave of tokenistic attempts to appeal to Chinese and Korean markets in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017) and the universally slated Bright (Ayer, 2017) stars as Hai Phuong, a former gangster-turned-debt collector whose daughter is abducted by organ-harvesting criminals. She has to kick, punch and chase a boat on a motorbike to get her back in the tight requirements of a standard Hollywood action movie, with little time for any deviation.
Superficially, this is a positive twist on an age-old tale. Fictional parents have been proving the unstoppable lengths they will go to for their children since Ancient Greece, but with 2,000 years to work on the theme, it would be exciting to see something with a little more depth and moral ambiguity. The ‘Furie’ of the film’s title presumably refers to the ‘infernal goddesses’ of Greek myth, and Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone would definitely see a potential candidate for a fourth sister in Hai Phuong. The Furies punished crimes of men by relentlessly hounding their victims until they were killed in absolute agony. Hai Phuong shows her credentials here, initially in the violents ways in which she approaches debt collecting and in unleashing her fury with a ‘y’ once her daughter is taken/stolen. Unfortunately, although Veronica Ngo’s martial-arts skills are up to scratch, she isn’t truly able to evoke the true parental devastation of potentially losing her child through her negligence.
Looking for moral perplexity and exceptional acting in a Vietnamese action film created for the most popular video-streaming service in the world might appear to be a fool’s errand, but it would be nice to see some deviation from the standard American cinematic model we’re all accustomed to and emotionally numb from. The Vietnamese film industry has struggled ever since moving to a market economy in 1986, and its relationship with American culture is a double-edged sword from the Resistance War Against America. Early on, the view of the country portrayed here is indistinguishable from the American-focussed Vietnam war films of the late 1970s and ‘80s. We see bustling rural life, market stalls and fishing, like we’re hanging out of a Iroquois helicopter in 1959, amazed at the quaintness of their simple ways. It isn’t until Hai Phuong chases the kidnappers to Ho Chi Minh City that we get to see a more urban side to the country, and even then nothing really challenges the Western preconceptions of Vietnam.
Judging it purely on its action sequences, the fighting scenes are well choreographed, and technically, it’s on a par with most big-budget Hollywood action films, if not quite achieving the virtuosity of The Raid (Evans, 2011), the benchmark now for any film where people end up punching each other. It seems a missed opportunity to have not challenged the standard model of this type of story, either with a more overt feminist subtext, or a more nuanced ethical examination of how far is too far when it comes to protecting your children. But judging a donkey for not being a horse is unfair, and on its own terms, this is an entertaining thriller that touches on a topical subject and is a solid showcase for a burgeoning film industry. With any amount of success on Netflix, hopefully they will fund more Vietnamese films so that they can start to rival other Southeast Asian countries’ productions.