Dongh Anh Quynh stars in Veronica Ngo's "Furies".

Violence is More Complex than Bad Therapy for Dudes — “Furies”

“Furies” is a blood soaked martial arts movie with feminist underpinnings and a sumptuous neon aesthetic. The Vietnamese film is the type of movie I really like, but not everyone will. There’s a motorcycle chase halfway through that describes why. I’ll avoid spoilers and just say that it’s a five-minute motorcycle chase shot in long takes with a lot of hand-to-hand fight choreography. You really need a ridiculous budget to pull that off well and “Furies” doesn’t have one. Director Veronica Ngo doesn’t care; she’s doing it anyway.

As I watched that chase, I could see how its green screen and street shot sequences were combined. The VFX budget isn’t there to fully clean that up. The mid-chase fights happen in lulls and bursts of activity that make an over-the-top sequence feel more grounded but also risk the pace. None of that mattered. Even though I could see the seams, Ngo’s craftsmanship, ambition, and the strong foundations of the rest of the film meant that it carried all the thrill of a sequence with a hundred times the budget.

Not every viewer will feel this way. Some will love what they’re seeing and double down on their investment in the film. Some will see those seams and want to walk away. Let’s pick up that divide at the end because “Furies” is also doing a lot of remarkable work that contextualizes its violence.

First, be aware that the rest of the review will discuss plot elements such as sexual assault and sex trafficking:

“Furies” follows Bi, who we meet as a girl when one of her mother’s clients rapes her. She fights back, unsuccessfully until her mother arrives and sacrifices herself. Bi has nothing left. We pick up years later, when Bi is a thief living on the streets and faces a similar situation. This time, she’s saved by Jacqueline, a martial artist who gives girls like her a place to stay – and the training to take revenge.

Bi joins the friendly Hong and standoffish Thanh in executing Jacqueline’s plan. The goal is to save girls who are being trafficked and shut down a local gang’s operation. Yet Bi wants more information about Jacqueline’s motives and is trying to square her own tendency to lock up because of PTSD with how drawn she is toward violence.

There are some complex thematic questions asked in Dong Anh Quynh’s performance as Bi. Somehow both visceral and haunting at once, her performance anchors the film and lends it a tremendous sense of personal consequence.

The aesthetic in “Furies” is gorgeous. What the trailer doesn’t show off is some phenomenal set design and lighting. Ngo’s sense of mise en scene in emotive moments touches on influences like Wong Kar-wai, even if the type of film she’s making can’t linger in them in the way a drama can.

There are some hard shifts of pace here or there. Some moments see brilliant edits and transition shots, but there are also times when the transition from montage to in-the-moment feels awkward. It isn’t helped by the choice of rock music chosen to bridge some, especially when the pop songs and traditional music used for others are so good.

These pace shifts shouldn’t be a surprise to fans of the genre. If anything, “Furies” reminds me of other Southeast Asian martial arts films that were simultaneously building their country’s film industry outward, such as “Ong Bak”, “Chocolate”, and “The Raid”. While “Furies” lacks a lead as physically astounding as Tony Jaa, JeeJa Yanin, and Iko Uwais, it is of a much higher quality when it comes to the acting. It is similar to these films in another way, however.

If you’re familiar with Southeast Asian martial arts movies, which have been some of the most groundbreaking over the last 20 years, you know they can be utterly brutal. What would often be suggested with a cutaway and reaction shot in Western action films is instead explicitly highlighted. Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese martial arts films often convey their themes by exploring the physical mess fights like these would have. They are typically bloody and shocking. “Furies” is toward the low end of this, which would be toward the high end for most Western films (think “John Wick” level). This approach creates something challenging with the topics “Furies” tackles – specifically when it comes to depicting the sexual assault and abuse that’s being fought.

This can be triggering and might be a reason in and of itself for some to avoid the film. That’s legitimate. In terms of judging “Furies” with the same eye we have for Western films, I’d ask us to first consider the major cultural differences in how something like this is portrayed.

Let’s talk about action scenes as a way of understanding this. Part of the brutality that’s highlighted in Southeast Asian martial arts cinema is to ground the film. Violence is communicated less as a show and more as something with consequences. In the U.S., we portray violence as something we’re removed from, a vehicle for further drama and character development. That reflects our cultural and national attitude toward violence as something that happens elsewhere and out of sight.

As a place where our violence happened within their sight, and where colonialist powers and now our corporations endlessly steal and produce more violence, Southeast Asian art often doesn’t have our luxury of pretending that violence is removed or serves as a main character’s therapy. In this genre, violence happens and the characters simply have to survive and react. There’s still development, but it’s usually about developing our understanding as viewers. It’s not that a character changes, it’s that we see more that was already there.

Take last year’s “The Gray Man”, a U.S. actioner where the climactic fight for Ryan Gosling’s Six serves as some kind of cathartic exposure therapy to heal his child abuse. How can he cope with his father injuring him for not being enough of a man? By telling a woman to lower her gun and give up the easy victory so he can be enough of a man to get more injured and beat the crap out of someone else. What? Yes. America.

By contrast, the violence in “Furies” or an Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Tony Jaa, or JeeJa Yanin film is just that: violence. Their characters remain consistent, but it’s our understanding of where their boundaries are, the nature of their opponents, and what their story of sacrifice will entail that grows.

Because it’s more bare about the brutality of violence, we consider that approach less refined. We imagine our making the violence a metaphor for a dude’s unwillingness to go to therapy is refined, which is completely backwards. Usually, it’s our cinematic approach to violence that’s amateurish and plays at an understanding of its capacity and impact that we do not possess as a culture.

That more honest portrayal of violence in Southeast Asian cinema such as “Furies” allows personal impact, emotion, and themes to be conveyed through the violence itself without diluting it with our constant need to assign symbology.

This wraps us back around to the portrayal of sexual assault in “Furies”. The use of sexual assault in women’s backstories is often criticized in Western film, and rightly so. We use it constantly as shorthand to describe a woman who’s toughened up or traded some of her humanity in exchange for being an effective protagonist. This pretends a woman can’t be both and can’t become a badass without a man’s abuse.

It’s good to portray someone who finds an outlet for what they’ve gone through, but (mostly male) writers don’t embrace that. They too often rely on it firstly as a fetishization to be repeated in the plot, and secondly as a way of portraying what’s happened as a woman losing something that makes her less of a woman. There’s an oft-repeated concept of a woman suffering rape to make room for toxic male qualities. The idea is that if she hadn’t had a part of herself carved away by a man so she could now fill it with the same qualities that harmed her, she never would have been able to become a hero. That kind of writing essentially justifies rape as a trade, retcons the same qualities that harmed her as good because she now uses them, and poses effective women heroes as an exception only realized because they’re ‘like men’.

By portraying a survivor as carrying within her the same toxic masculinity that assaulted her, and only being effective because of it, this approach also practices a secondary but ongoing conceptual violation of that character. It’s horribly judgmental, literally dehumanizing, misogynist, lazy writing. It deserves to be criticized.

Let me state the obvious for a second: Survivors are just as human as anyone, and are effective in any way they choose to practice without having to embrace any aspect of the abuse that harmed them.

This criticism of sexual assault-as-character development in Western writing is well-codified and very legitimate. At the same time, we should use some caution in applying the same reaction to a Vietnamese film made by a woman. I described the differences in portraying violence between our storytelling cultures because some of those same differences apply to how “Furies” approaches showing sexual assault. In other words, “Furies” does show enough of it to be disturbing and triggering, and in a way that would be fetishized in most Western films. Yet everything that surrounds it here communicates differently.

Similar to that tendency to show the consequences and bloodiness of a knife or gun fight and how this is a more honest portrayal of violence, “Furies” also shows us a girl wailing or being assaulted by a man several times her size. Unlike the fetishization that’s common in Western portrayals of this, the refusal to shy away from these moments isn’t leering. It’s dreadful and horrific. When our heroes break in and start slicing up traffickers and rapists and rescuing girls, you don’t see the martial arts as a show. You don’t shy away from the violence that results. You don’t see that retribution as a character’s personal therapy or a metaphor for catharsis. You just see it as necessary. You see it as justified. It’s what needs to happen in order to save people in this moment. You see it as what you hope you’d do if you were put in the same situation and saw what was happening.

That is a more powerful approach and a more complex understanding of its topic than we tend to take about these matters in popular Western filmmaking. The unshying eye toward violence in Southeast Asian cinema has a point we too often dismiss because we deride it as regressive instead of more honest.

By pretending violence is a billion things it isn’t, popular storytelling culture in the U.S. often justifies violence as growth, and projects our own savagery onto others. This makes us overlook so much of what really is more complex and realistic, regardless of whether a setpiece is. As in much of Southeast Asian cinema, “Furies” shows some reality of both the violence and what it takes revenge for. When we make these scenes in Western cinema, it’s often a show. Not everybody treats it that way just because we do.

“Furies” doesn’t take its depiction of sexual assault and turn it into a metaphor. It doesn’t depict it as an excuse to remove humanity, embrace toxicity, or as cheap character development. It doesn’t use it as a peep show. Here, it is profound and uses the camera to put you in someone else’s shoes, to rely on performance in a way that is utterly human and asks you not to turn away and pretend the horrific is something else. It is presented in a way that twins empathy as a response to shock, and clarifies what needs to be fought not just externally, as in a martial arts film, but also internally.

“Furies” makes a point about Hong helping Bi and Thanh experience aspects of childhood and explore culturally feminine concepts. They dress up, hold dance parties, celebrate each other, and these expressions of exploring what they’ve been denied are humanizing escapes from what they’ve endured and what they’re asked to do. They aren’t badasses because they’ve had something carved away that they then replace with toxic masculinity; they’re badasses because they train and in between sessions re-embrace who they want to be. They retake aspects of who they are and refuse to have these replaced – whether by abusive men or women complicit in that patriarchal abuse.

Bi also pushes back against the repetition that fate brought her here. That would mean that fate meant for her to be raped as a child, and that’s a horrible message to repeat or reinforce. She maintains having her own choice in any situation and rejecting the idea that her current path is fated, because that would once again mean losing control to others’ ideas of her role and purpose. She is someone who questions, and the act of questioning is both an act of maintaining who she is, and something she can help Hong and Thanh re-take as aspects of themselves.

I won’t tell you the film’s happy. It’s a neon noir, and noirs are not kind. I won’t tell you it’s great, but I will tell you it’s a new favorite. Veronica Ngo is an ambitious, confident, and exciting director with remarkable abilities for design, shot choice, and getting the most out of her actors. The thematic perspectives in “Furies” are complex and rarely attempted in action movies. Even if the film doesn’t focus on them quite as much as I’d want (it’s juggling a lot of concepts and faces have to be punched, after all), the ideas here are deeply interesting and it’s valuable to see them done this way. Whether this makes up for the seams that show in biting off so much at once is going to vary by viewer.

That motorcycle chase I brought up at the beginning is a microcosm of the film as a whole. For some, the ideas behind the setpieces are exciting enough that we’ll believe our way through and fill in the gaps that its budget couldn’t. For others, those seams will mean you see each of these elements as separate and not fused into a whole enough to maintain your interest. Neither’s a correct way of seeing it; we all have different expectations for how a film engages us. You may know what kind of viewer you are, but that also changes for a lot of people depending on the genre and its context. If you don’t know yet which of those viewers you are in relation to Southeast Asian martial arts movies, I’d suggest you give “Furies” a try.

You can watch “Furies” on Netflix.

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