Furie (Lê Văn Kiệt, 2019)

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It’s not often we get a Vietnamese movie here on Seattle Screens, much less an action movie as kinetic and thrilling as Furie, a Taken-clone starring Veronica Ngô, the actress who stole the opening moments of The Last Jedi a few years ago. Like Ong-Bok: Muay Thai Warrior, from Thailand, and The Raid, from Indonesia, before it, Furie is a further marker in the spread of high quality martial arts cinema outward from Hong Kong and Japan across Southeast Asia at a time when the Hong Kong industry itself is having its lifeblood sucked away by the vast opportunities and resources but complicated politics of the Mainland Chinese market, like Jupiter stealing the Earth’s atmosphere in the biggest action hit of the year so far. Resolutely low-scale, Furie follows a mother’s quest from the pastoral countryside to the neon-lit criminal underbelly of Saigon in search of her ten year old daughter, kidnapped by an international cartel of organ harvesters. The plot is familiar, and its beats are nothing new, though the emphasis on the femininity of its heroes and ultimate villain is unusual. But the stunts, the stunts are terrific.

Unlike Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais, Ngô is more an actor than a martial artist, though like many a great actress before her (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Kara Hui, Cheng Pei-pei) she is a dancer as well (she one the first season of Vietnam’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Director Lê Văn Kiệt, along with his stunt crew, do a fantastic job of covering any weaknesses as a fighter she might have, honestly I didn’t notice much of anything (unlike with Brie Larson in Captain Marvel, who just looks out of place in every fight). The fight scenes are fluid and brutal, in the bone-crushing-to-electronic-beats style that has dominated martial arts movies this century, ever since Donnie Yen discovered MMA at least. Best of all is that the fights actually build, they have a sense of rhythm and pace that is almost entirely missing from Hollywood filmmaking, and frankly from a lot of what comes out of Hong Kong these days. The final 15 minutes are spectacular without restoring to special effects or outlandish stunts: they’re simply the best fights in the movie, charged with emotion and skill and captured with a minimum of editing. It’s the best on-screen action since Paradox, and possibly since SPL 2: A Time for Consequences.

Other than that, and outside of Ngô’s soulful performance, which brings to mind some of Hui’s better work (the recent and very fine Mrs. K, for one), and the novelty (at least for us in the US) of seeing contemporary Vietnam on film, that there isn’t much to the movie. Where Paradox and SPL 2 complicate the simple missing kid/organ harvesting plots with complex conspiracies and some beautifully outlandish storytelling, Furie is a simple straight line: a mother doing the impossible for the sake of her daughter. But I’ll take the purity of this efficient, brutally exciting adventure any day over the bloated CGI artifacts and winking, middling politics of whatever corporate Hollywood blockbuster it is we’re supposed to be caring about this week.

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SPL: Paradox (Wilson Yip, 2017)

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It’s unclear if this film is actually a continuation of the SPL series or if it just started as one and then mutated into its own thing. I thought I saw the characters for “Sha Po Lang” on the title card of the movie though, so I’m just gonna go with it. Regardless, like the second film in the series, SPL 2: A Time for ConsequencesParadox has only a tenuous thematic relation to its forbearers: all of the characters are new. Louis Koo plays a Hong Kong cop who travels to Pattaya, in Thailand, in search of his daughter, who has gone missing. He hooks up with a Thai cop (Wu Yue) as the two uncover an organ trafficking ring with connections all the way to the top of city government. Helping out in the investigation is another cop, a superstitious (possibly psychic) Tony Jaa, star of the last SPL and arguably the best martial arts star in the world today, in what amounts to little more than a guest-starring role. The final villain is played by Lam Ka-tung (Sparrow, Trivisa), which means that the two most important Thai characters in the film are played by Chinese actors. Such are the vagaries of international cinema.

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VIFF 2017: Paradox (Wilson Yip, 2017)

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You wouldn’t know it from the title or VIFF’s program notes, but Wilson Yip’s Paradox began life as the third entry in the SPL series before the film’s producers and programmers jettisoned any mention of its genealogy ahead of the official rollout. And to be clear, this doesn’t appear to be a quirk of North American unfamiliarity with the series: even in Hong Kong it played as a clandestine sequel, with nary a mention of Sha Po Lang in sight (in English, anyways). And to confuse things further, Soi Cheang, director of the superb second entry, was originally slated to direct Paradox, only to swap out for workman Wilson Yip, director of the not-entirely-superb original SPL, late in the game. Cheang retains a producing credit on Paradox and rumor has it that he will be back to direct the next SPL film, which may end up monikered ‘SPL 3’ if the pre-production reports are to be believed. In the world of Soi Cheang, things tend towards mutation.

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