Original Title: Hai Phượng
Release Date: February 22, 2019
Directed by: Le-Van Kiet
Screenplay: Le-Van Kiet
Cast: Veronica Ngo Thanh Van, Cat Vy, Phan Thanh Nhien, Pham Anh Khoa, Tran Thanh Hoa
The film opens on Hai Phượng (Ngo) busting debtors’ bones, framed almost like a villain with her merciless fighting style. As an ex-gangster hated and hunted down by many, she and her daughter Mai (Vy) live a fear-filled outcast life on the outskirts of a rural town. Just enough time sets up the naturalistic human drama, well-acted by Ngo and Vy, that propels the following pulp action.
The titular character (this film was retitled Furie for international audiences) is a woman whose stubbornness is both her curse and greatest strength. She is a mother who actually looks tired, sitting down and throwing cigarette butts in the water, unglamorous bags under her eyes. Ngo is a big star in Vietnam but is best known to international audiences as Paige Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. She co-produced the film under her production company Studio 68, and I think her input helped the characterization of Phuong. Though directed by a man, there are no alluring or exploitative shots of the protagonist, even in her call-girl flashbacks. She is mainly dressed in a practical long purple tunic over pants. Hai Phuong also presents a refreshing portrayal of a self-sufficient single mother conflicted with ideas of how to raise a child. She is bombarded with comments about her own failures, and with society’s view that she isn’t a proper woman or mother. Then her daughter is kidnapped.
While the kidnappers appear to be led by a man named Truc (Khoa), the big boss villain commanding them all is Thanh Sói, (loosely translates to Wolf Rod) played by action-trained actress Tran Thanh Hoa. She is the most physically intimidating character in a film filled with deadly fighters. The eventual showdown between her and Phuong is so brutal that I was sweating and could hardly breathe in the theater just watching it! Others in the theater seemed to react in a similar, excited fashion too.
Kefi Abrikh’s (Jason Bourne, Lucy) action choreography incorporates the Vietnamese fighting style Vovinam with intense multi-discipline training. Ngo’s Instagram even showed her hands shaking after Muay Thai practice before production began. Actors performed much of their own stunt work, blending well with stunt actors, with no barrage of rapid-fire cuts for disguise. While the overall plot formula is a common one, Hai Phuong still felt like a new and exhilarating experience. I was also relieved that there was no romantic interest from a detective (Nhien) investigating the kidnapping ring. Too many movies would have taken the set-up and gone that direction, but his character seems more placed to show the positive side of government (and appease any law-minded viewers).
Phuong receives varying levels of aid and rejection along her path. Characters alternately find her unsympathetic or understandable, which to me felt different than the more sympathetic treatment given to protagonists of other female-led action films. The fight scenes and drama are interspersed with different tones of brief, well-timed comedic moments that had the mostly Vietnamese audience around me laughing a second before I could finish reading the subtitles. Some might find the purple and blue night lighting too artsy, but I found them appropriate (and even lovely in the home scenes) for the city and countryside exteriors and interiors.
This film also made history as the first Vietnamese film ever to be released in the United States, and the highest grossing Vietnamese film ever. The final shot might come off like an ending from a retro B-movie, but it also feels jolting and inspirational. Where other movies might have been content with restoring stability, Phuong urges the audience to keep fighting. Besides being an engaging and intense thriller, Hai Phuong could also be seen as a cathartic fantasy (in the non-magical sense) adventure centered on an outsider trying to live her own determined life with her child. Though Phuong might live in fear of past and present, she decides to scare all her enemies right back.
The film has just recently been released on Netflix.