No-one To Hear Their ‘Prey-ers’ -‘The Prey’ – Film Review

In The Most Dangerous Game (Pichel/Schoedsack, 1932), Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) arranges for a ship to be wrecked on his isolated private island so that he can hunt and kill the passengers that survive. Since then, there have been several adaptations of the same O. Henry short story, also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff”. While writers Jimmy Henderson, Michael Hodgson and Kai Miller might not credit the story itself for their new Cambodian action film The Prey, it is definitely of the same species, although the extent to which it has evolved in the 88 years since is debatable.

Gu Shangwei plays Xin, a Chinese detective working undercover in Cambodia who is arrested and taken to a jungle prison. Unfortunately for him, ultra-rich thrill-seekers pay to hunt down and kill the inmates of their choice. After being chosen as a wild-card by the prison’s warden, he is forced into a fight for survival against three heavily-armed Nimrods with varying degrees of sanity.

Director and co-writer Jimmy Henderson has been working in Cambodia since 2011 and from the success of his Netflix-distributed martial arts thriller Jailbreak (2017), he has managed to develop The Prey, touted as the first $1 million Cambodian action film. His direction here is solid if a little utilitarian, but the key difference in the two films is the move by Jean-Paul Ly from star of Jailbreak to being the action director and fight choreographer on this new release. While Ly clearly has the talent to make his own stunt work look extremely impressive, the choreography in The Prey is respectable but not breathtaking.

The main issue is that the film is neither fish nor fowl. It isn’t outrageous and over-the-top enough to be an all-out action film or realistic enough to be dramatically credible. It doesn’t have enough political nous to be a statement on modern Cambodia either, in fact we learn almost nothing about the country except as a vague Southeast Asian setting that could conceivably (to a Western audience) have a jail where this could happen.

Most of the characters are severely underwritten, and although it does stop them from being completely predictable clichés, it doesn’t make them particularly interesting to an audience. You would expect nameless victims to have non-existent back-stories, but not even the main protagonists are developed beyond the bare minimum needed to keep the narrative moving. Mony (Rous Mony), a prisoner who Xin ends up as quarry with is at first presented as a weaselly chancer, using his knowledge of Cambodian and Cantonese to enhance his status at the prison. Shortly after, a brawl breaks out and he climbs a tree to avoid the violence and confrontation. The traits of coward and weasel might not seem too difficult to assimilate, but nothing is built from either incident. Although slightly whinge-y while being pursued by armed hunters, when the time comes to resist them, he does so without too much difficulty or momentous triumph of personality.

Vithaya Pansringarm as the Warden is the nearest the film comes to creating an effective action-move stereotype. Recognisable from his role as the corrupt policeman Lieutenant Chang in Only God Forgives, (Refn 2013), he also played a warm-up prison warden role in the unwanted Statham sequel Mechanic: Resurrection (2016). Disappointingly he doesn’t have enough to do here, and although he seems to be enjoying his heinous behaviour, he doesn’t reach such peak loathsomeness that only his death could quench an audience’s bloodlust for revenge against him. Even a Reservoir Dogs-esque scene of torture in which he jauntily shimmies around to music while telling Xin how much he loves breaking men until they become like animals isn’t enough to make him reprehensible enough to truly hate him.

The ridiculous Ozploitation knock-off Turkey Shoot (Trenchard-Smith, 1982) is closer to The Prey plot-wise than The Most Dangerous Game, setting the same narrative in a remote fortress with a group of deviants that have been cast out of a future dystopian society. Although undoubtedly bad, where it succeeds is in making the story even more ridiculous with its gratuitous gore and bizarre cast. By attempting to ground The Prey in something closer to a plausible reality, Henderson and his co-writers have downplayed the story’s strengths and created something that although enjoyable on a fundamental level doesn’t really warrant extensive analysis. With the lack of Cambodian films reaching a wider audience, this is a missed opportunity to present a view of a country that most Western audiences know very little about, all packaged in an exciting 90-minute action film. As it is, it’s just a fairly entertaining lower-budget Hollywood film in an vague Southeast Asian location.

Hell Hath No ‘Furie’ – Film Review

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.