SXSW 2023 Review: FURIES, A Confused Uber Sleazy Actioner Misses The Mark
We all love Ngô Thanh Vân, better known in the West by her professional name, Veronica Ngô. First introduced to savvy genre film fans in the ‘00s through her kickass collaborations with Johnny Tri Nguyen in The Rebel (Dòng máu anh hung) and Clash (Bay rong, one of my very first reviews at this site back in 2010 – don’t judge me), Ngô has continued to make inroads in the outside of her Vietnamese home market with appearances in films like The Last Jedi, The Old Guard, and The Princess. She is a confirmed ass-kicker, with fighting skills that rival any big-time action star of the last two decades. Four years ago, she starred in director Le-Van Kiet’s Furie, at this year’s SXSW she takes the reins for the prequel, Furies, and the results are definitely mixed.
Furies turns back the clock fifteen years, examining the story of Bi (Dong Anh Quynh), a cast-off young girl forced to a life of pickpocketing after a brutal sexual assault and its aftermath leave her an orphan. Bi is found and adopted by Jacqueline (Ngô) into a kind of Charlie’s Angels-esque troop of martial arts vigilantes. Brooding and silent, Bi’s new sisters the playful girly-girl Thanh (Rima Thanh Vy) and the hard-ass but selfless Hong (pop star Toc Tien). They all have tragic histories punctuated with sexual violence, but they are now out to avenge their own pasts and save more young girls from suffering their fates. Standing in the way is big time crime boss, Hai, who lords over the cities numerous vices with the help of a trio of enforcers eager to do his bidding.
What follows is a fairly paint-by-numbers revenge film, the trio kick, punch, stab, and slash their way through countless faceless goons on their way to the big boss, leaving a river of blood in their wake. That part is all fine and good. The action is, for the most part, very solid with good choreography, mostly decent camerawork (though it doesn’t allow long sequences to play out as often as it should), and plenty of fuck-yeah moments to get the audience pumped up. There’s nothing wrong with a straight forward action film, but the way the film gets to these moments feels pretty slimy.
Furies attempts to position itself as an old school exploitation actioner, presenting a neon lit, sleazopolis of a setting and it takes delight in showing everything this shitshow of a city has to offer. But it revels in all the wrong things. The motivator of sexual assault feels very old hat and tired, and while it is supposed to rile up the audience, the film chooses to show at least a couple of the assaults on screen in gruesome detail and it really feels unnecessary. I am as much a fan of sleaze as the next perv, but the film seems to appeal the worst prurient interests of the audience and those first few scenes really taint the rest of the experience.
The film works best when it focuses on the three central characters and allows them an opportunity to be playful. Among Furies most successful sequences are a pair of early montages, one a poppy makeover sequence where Bi finds her groove, and a second training montage when she bonds with her new sisters. A lot of the performances here are cartoonish, though I have to believe that is intentional in order to conjure the spirit of late ‘80s – early ‘90s South East Asian trash cinema, though it is among the many factors that create tonal confusion in the film.
Is this a serious revenge film? Is it a trashy throwback? The aesthetic feels very influenced by the ‘10s neon/synthwave action films, the locations reminded me of a kind of Refn-esque vision of Vietnam by way of Only God Forgives while some of the debauchery felt beholden to the gonzo gangster worlds of Takashi Miike, a la Mole Song or Ichi the Killer, or even a kind of film that synthesizes all of those reference like John Wick. Not bad references on their own, but here it was almost too much.
Furies isn’t Ngô’s first film as a director, but it will be her first to arrive gift-wrapped to a western audience when it debuts on Netflix on March 23rd, and it doesn’t feel like the best representation of her capabilities. She’s one of the world’s top action stars who has been waiting for a spotlight after years of work, and while her performance as Jacqueline in this film is definitely one of the major highlights, the rest feels like a film by very skeevy committee (a quick look at the list of producers reveals a very questionable Hong Kong personality that definitely makes sense in retrospect). Once Furies hits the streamer, I expect a lot of very solid clips to hit the action film fandom to great fanfare, but a feature isn’t just clips, it is the story, the settings, the themes, and the execution that make it work, and this one fails to connect.