Movie Review – Free Fire

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun time with guns-a-blazing!

REVIEW: The films by British director Ben Wheatley have all been incredibly distinct from another and are all very well-done. Whether going through the genre of crime, psychological horror, dark comedy, dystopian drama and historical surrealism, you can never accuse Wheatley of doing the same trick twice. But the crucial through-line that Wheatley applies into all of those films is a streak of black humour.

In his most commercial film to date, Wheatley has assembled a who’s who of talented character actors in a simple premise that is so ingenious, that I’m surprised that no one has done it earlier. But the premise can be both easy to achieve and to fail so will Wheatley and his cast/crew succeed with a perfect headshot?

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Set in 1970’s Boston, Justine (Brie Larson) plans a handover with two groups of arms dealers (led by Vernon and Ord, played by Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer) to meet up in a dilapidated warehouse for a huge arms deal.

With character actors like Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay and others) as the dealers, it only takes one of them to be the party pooper and once the shit hits the fan, it’s every man (and woman) for themselves.

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Basically, what we have here is an elongated and grimy shootout with two sides going at it. Or is it three? Or more? Who the hell knows? The characters sure don’t! Funnily enough, the obliviousness, the unruly feel and the realistic approach to the film-making is what makes the film a hilarious time at the cinema.

One of the reasons Free Fire is a fun time is due to how Wheatley gets rids of the Hollywood sheen of filming action scenes and goes for a painfully realistic vibe, that elicits lots of laughs. No one poses, no one does any amazing feats (like diving with two guns blazing) and no one ever comes out looking cool. This ain’t no John Woo film, folks. People get hurt. Really…really…bad.

Wheatley also utilizes the environment effectively, as he ups the difficulties the characters face to survive with humourous aplomb. People crawl on the gravelly dirt with sharp rocks, broken glass and jagged metal poles everywhere and wince in pain and it makes the experience both cringe-worthy and groan-worthy in the best of ways.

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The script is also very-well written by Wheatley and prime collaborator Amy Jump, with many quotable lines that are guaranteed to leave you in stitches at some points (Protection from infection!) and numerous character touches add much colour to the film. Like the fact that most of the dealers wear fancy suits or the amusing resilience of some of the characters (Drugs can have that effect on people).

But the almost-miraculous feat of the film is that the film sustains the interest of the audience with its short running time, location shifting and tight editing. The economy and efficiency of Wheatley‘s storytelling certainly helps, as he introduces his characters swiftly, shapes the dynamics distinctively, sets the wheels in the motion and he never throttles back on the momentum of the plot.

But the film wouldn’t be entertaining as it is without the talented ensemble cast. Brie Larson charms whilst convincingly standing her ground; Armie Hammer effortlessly exudes cool with a bit of a sinister edge; Cillian Murphy makes for a surprisingly shy lead; Jack Reynor is amusingly aggressive; Enzo Cilenti and Noah Taylor bicker nicely; Sam Riley is hilariously resilient and unhinged; Michael Smiley is sharp while being world-weary and Babou Ceesay is likable as the smooth, straight man of the group.

But the man that steals the show is Sharlto Copley. Clearly a very talented actor, but somehow, people don’t utilize his talents very well. Whether he’s overacting for all the wrong reasons like in the remake of Oldboy or appearing in films with terrible scripts like Chappie and Elysium, he can barely catch a break.

Ironically enough, neither can his character and Copley damn near steals the show as Vernon. Whether he’s making terrible flirtatious exchanges with Justine, making deals for survival with Ord or improvising so-called safety measures, Copley is a total blast in the role.

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Despite all the things the film gets right, there are flaws that prevent it from being truly amazing. The ending ventures towards the familiar, which is surprising and disappointing, considering Wheatley‘s prior films. And it is because of the ending that the film doesn’t leave a big impression when one leaves the cinema, leaving the film to be nothing more than a very entertaining genre exercise, instead of the grand film it could’ve been.

Free Fire is Wheatley‘s most accessible film that entertains with its wonderful cast, the witty, quotable script and Wheatley‘s confident direction. It may not hit a bullseye with perfect accuracy, but unlike the characters, it’s certainly ain’t a bad shot.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Wheatley’s assured direction

Realistic approach provides shocking laughs

CONS

Ending doesn’t quite hit the mark

Doesn’t leave a huge impression overall

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

Movie Review – Their Finest

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that is hopefully better than the last film I saw from Lone Scherfig: One Day.

REVIEW: Lone Scherfig is a film-maker that has always frustrated me. The reason for it is that her filmography is always up-and-down; going from a film I like to a film I dislike and so on. Her Dutch films were great, but apart from An Education, her films were just flops, especially the turgid One Day.

So I wasn’t really looking forward to Their Finest, but I found out that it was a comedy as well as a drama, I had my hopes up quite a bit, since Scherfig‘s Dutch films were majorly comedies. And with a cast consisting of Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan and Jeremy Irons, I thought that maybe this film would be worthwhile after all. Does the film cast and crew live up the title?

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Set in London in the 1940’s, Gemma Arterton stars as Catrin Cole, a scriptwriter who is hired by the British Ministry to lend a “woman’s touch” to their latest propaganda film, writing the dialogue of the women present.

Although her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston) thinks she can do better, Catrin’s sheer talent and moxie gets her noticed by cynical, witty and possibly misogynistic lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Dunkirk rescue starring the incredibly arrogant and pompous washed-up actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy).

As bombs (figuratively and literally) are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their variably talented cast and crew work furiously and tenaciously to make a film that will hopefully warm the hearts of the nation.

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Despite my low expectations, I am happy to report that Their Finest was a consistent delight from beginning to end. Director Lone Scherfig shows why her talent and film-making was acclaimed in the first place, as she deftly lays out comedy and drama with an assured hand that it never becomes too cutesy nor does it ever become overly melodramatic (although it does come dangerously close).

There are scenes in the third act that come dangerously melodramatic that it threatens to derail the true point of the story as well as it does feel like it just happens to occur in the film for the sake of drama. Adding to the fuel is Rachel Portman‘s score, which certainly does milk the sentiment all of its worth, but thankfully, it works it never truly hinders the film thanks to the film’s old-fashioned tone but mainly it is because of the appealing cast.

I remember Gemma Arterton in blockbuster roles that always felt like film-makers were trying to stuff her into roles that Rachel Weisz would play early in her career. But seeing her in much more substantial roles like the titular role The Disappearance of Alice Creed to  the seductive vampire in Byzantium to a talking apparition (don’t ask) in The Voices, she clearly has talent. And in Their Finest, she may have given her best performance to date. Conveying inner strength, charm, wit and grace so effortlessly in the leading role, I knew that the film was in good hands the second she appeared on-screen.

Sam Claflin is an actor that I have not been impressed with. Not that he is a bad actor or anything but in roles like The Hunger Games films, the awful Snow White films and the execrable Me Before You, he is not the actor that I would put in a very positive light. Until now. Finally, he is in a role where he has true personality and verve and Claflin plays Buckley with a great sense of dry humour and heart that I almost could not believe that it was him. Arterton and Claflin share great chemistry that grows from disdain to respect and eventually, love. And while the romance could have been perfunctory, the chemistry alone makes it worth the inclusion.

The supporting cast are all great in their roles (including Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Stephanie Hyam and others), with Bill Nighy being the most Bill Nighy in the history of Bill Nighy. In other words, he brings another dimension to the term “self-mockery” and he brings out the most funniest parts of the film. While Jake Lacy is a hoot as the Air Force hero turned token American in the film (within the film) and even Jeremy Irons gets in on the fun in a cameo role as the Secretary of War who enforces government “guidelines” to the film.

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Although the sentimentality of the film does go a bit far for some, director Scherfig surprisingly deals with the story’s feminist message with a light touch i.e. like how men are scared of women who do not want to go back to their domestic roles after taking on some other workplace. The themes are still present enough that it adds to the character arc of Catrin and to the entertainingly meta moments of the film within the film, but they are never hammered to the point that it becomes obnoxious or annoying.

Aside from being a romance, a drama and a comedy, the film is also an entertaining look behind film-making in the old, practical days. It is quite fascinating and very amusing to see how the crew handcrafts the on-screen effects like a scene where the crew are recreating the scene of Dunkirk or how scenes on boats are made on set, rather than in the ocean.

Overall, Their Finest is a definite crowd-pleaser that is sure to please audiences with its insanely likable cast, its old-fashioned film-making (whether its own or the commentary) and its high amount of charm.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Old-fashioned tone/storytelling

Entertaining look at past film-making

Very funny and emotionally satisfying

Deals with themes of feminism with subtlety

CONS

May get too sentimental for some

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
Director: Lone Scherfig
Screenwriter: Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans

Movie Review – Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (OAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: None whatsoever. Chose to watch it based on the poster.

REVIEW: Break-ups are incredibly hard. While some of them can be done like quickly taking off a band-aid, some of them take ages to get over. In those latter break-ups, not all of the are arduous, but are actually dealt nonchalantly as if the break-up never happened.

And that’s how the current film fits in. In a conventional film, break-up films are either usually about the break-up itself or how one rises from the ashes of said break-up. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii fits in the latter category and there have been great films in that category like the Korean non-rom-com Very Ordinary Couple and the surprise Chinese blockbuster Love Is Not Blind. Will the film be as good as those mentioned or will it be an entry that is easily forgotten like a used band-aid?

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Aya Ayano stars as Rinko, an office worker who currently lives with Isamu (Kentaro Tamura), a graduate student, but the two are in a bit of an unusual dilemma: the two have actually broken up. Rinko still resides in the apartment that Isamu is currently paying for and ironically, the two get along much better than they ever did as a couple.

But Isamu has feelings for a young girl, Kasumi (Kato Aoi), whom also has feelings for him. But when Rinko is made aware of that fact, she too realizes that she still has feelings for Isamu, which causes quite a conundrum that affects the delicate equilibrium of their unorthodox relationship.

But rest assured: this film is not about a love triangle at all. It is about how one’s apathy towards a break-up until one realizes that they are going through a road of denial. And the film succeeds in conveying that dilemma very well. There’s a scene in the film that almost reminded me of a scene in the 2011 dramedy Frances Ha, where Rinko basically wants to take a vacation “from herself” despite her financial situation. But like Frances Ha, it doesn’t turn out the way it’s planned out to be and it ends up being depressingly funny, with all the long waits to connect with someone.

Speaking of funny, there is a nice touch of humour peppered throughout, and it is all based on character. Whether it is about characters being unable to articulate their feelings or how they want to avoid the “big issue” or how friends of the characters judge the situations of the couple, all of it is nicely done and never derails the storytelling.

Like the majority of Japanese cinema, films are dealt with subtlety it is because of that approach that Love and Goodbye and Hawaii succeeds. There are no scenes of dramatic contrivances, no scenes of histrionics and definitely no scenes of cloying music, which makes the dramatic components of the film surprisingly realistic and down-to-earth. And thankfully, the approach is held throughout, particularly in the ending, where it is both low-key and satisfying in its conclusions of its character arcs.

One of the film’s surprises is that we never truly know why the couple have broken up, but in this case, it makes perfect sense within the film’s scope, since the film never places judgment on any of the characters; which makes the audience active to judge for themselves.

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And thankfully, the cast are up to the task. Kentaro Tamura is good as the indecisive Isamu, as he makes a nice impression as to why Rinko liked him as well as why there was tension between the couple. Momoka Ayukawa is hilarious as the sister of one of Rinko’s friends, who in a serendipitous way, becomes the voice of reason.

But the biggest standout is Aya Ayano as Rinko. Whether coming up with an analogy for her break-up or feasting on fast food to ease herself on her living situation or simply having hiccups while she becomes nervous, Ayano shines as the lovelorn woman in the odd situation.

With any relationship, they all have flaws and this film has some. But with the relationships that are long-lasting, it is the supposed flaws that people usually remember the most. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii usually drags a bit in its pacing and it can be a bit too understated for some to truly appreciate, but like Rinko herself, you will end up remembering this film endearingly, hiccups and all.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances from the cast

Nice, understated storytelling

Refreshing changes in its approach to the relationship genre

CONS

May be too understated for some

Some slow spots

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Aya Ayano, Kentaro Tamura, Momoka Ayukawa, Aoi Kato, Risa Kameda
Director: Shingo Matsumura
Screenwriters: Shingo Matsumura

Movie Review – Colossal

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EXPECTATIONS: Something original, audacious and surprising.

REVIEW: Nacho Vigalondo has always been an exciting film-maker for me. Ever since I saw his first film, I’ve always wanted to see more of this work. His handling of genre film and melding it with themes of humanity or topical themes has always fascinated and thrilled me.

Timecrimes was a great time-travel film that revolved around infidelity; Extraterrestrial was an entertaining sci-fi movie that just so happened to be a rom-com; while Open Windows was a nail-biting thriller that happened to revolve around the invasion of privacy.

So when I heard that Vigalondo was making a film that featured a kaiju monster, I was in. And having the biggest star to date with Anne Hathaway (as the lead actor and producer), the film has some big expectations to fill. And knowing nothing about the genre it is executing for, will Vigalondo live up to the bonkers premise?

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Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, a trainwreck in human form. Because of her relentless partying and drinking, she has been dumped by her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), has lost her job as an online writer and has no place to live. So she reluctantly moves back to her hometown.

Struggling to stay awake, let alone trying to get her life back on track, she finds her way into Oscar (Jason Sudekis), a childhood friend of Gloria who may or may not have feelings for her. As he helps her get back on her feet, a giant monster is attacking Seoul, Korea and through some strange coincidences (or maybe the drinking finally has long-term effects), she strangely has some sort of connection to said monster.

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As much as I want to go into extreme detail about the story, I know I can’t because not only do I want to spoil the many surprises, but the film is best if you know absolutely nothing about it, beyond the premise. Even the trailer doesn’t spoil much, which is surprising. But what I can say with utmost honesty is that Colossal is one of the best films I have seen this year so far.

The film is basically a female self-empowerment story that just happens to have a giant monster in it. And it is these mix of genres that meld together is what makes the film so original. But none of it would be effective if it weren’t for Nacho Vigalondo‘s direction.

Executing the film’s tone as straight as possible, finding the sincerity in all of its grounded themes and wringing the best out of his actors, Vigalondo just knocks it out of the park. The themes here, including coming to terms with ones’ self and overcoming addictions, are all dealt with in surprising ways. Like how the monster can be a metaphor for our destructive selves and how they can harm others. Even something as minor as a playground fight, where Gloria puts up her dukes, can have such strong meaning behind it.

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Speaking of putting up dukes, there are many monster scenes in the film, which are very well done considering the budget and the way the story combines both the human story and the monster story together in the climax is absolutely satisfying, both emotionally and cinematically.

A lot of the credit goes to actors, which include Anne Hathaway, who gives her best performance since Rachel Getting Married. Funnily enough, the character of Gloria is quite similar her character in Married due to the fact that they are both trainwrecks; they both repel everybody close to them and they both refuse to take responsibility for their own actions.

But in Colossal, Hathaway manages to find a sweet, relatable side to her character that makes it convincing that people would want to be around her as well as the audience wanting to root for her. It also helps that Hathaway still has her comedic chops (evident in The Princess Diaries that made her a star in the first place) and the film gives her ample opportunities to utilize them.

As for Dan Stevens (whom I like to call the new Cary Elwes), he isn’t in the film that much (probably due to being in Legion and Beauty and the Beast) but he does show a panicky wide-eyed side to his character that did make me laugh, like when his character confronts Sudekis‘ character.

Speaking of Sudekis, his performance is one of the most surprising things in the film. Without spoiling anything, his character is charming, if a little clingy. He is also quite generous, if a little intrusive and he is very laid-back, if a little uninitiated. But it is these “ifs” and many more that makes his character compelling and when he gradually reveals who he really is, that is when Sudekis shows he is more than just his comic persona.

As for flaws, there are scenes where you can nitpick logical errors (like how can one character forget or repress such an event) and abrupt tone shifts (which is quite befitting considering the drunk state of Gloria), but neither is enough to knock down the solid, yet unorthodox foundations that are surprisingly down-to-earth: seeing the humanity within the monster and how one’s self-empowerment can be the greatest gift one’s self can give.

Colossal is one of the best movies of the year and for those who are complaining that we do not see original films in the cinema lately; well this is one of them. I really do hope that a lot of people see it, just so we can have more films like this. The very fact that this film exists is fantastic enough, but for it to work as effectively as it does, it just seems miraculous to me.

Like a fellow film critic of mine once said: If we don’t see the movies that deserve it, we get the movies that we deserve.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting

Thematically sound story

Constantly surprises and keeps the audience off-guard

Incredibly satisfying ending

CONS

Tone shifts and logical errors

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Screenwriter: Nacho Vigalondo

Movie Review – Mrs K (OAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: An action-packed end to an illustrious action career of Kara Wai.

REVIEW: Kara Wai has had a very long and illustrious career. Ever since she was discovered by acclaimed director Lau Kar-leung, she has been in countless martial arts films, building up her reputation as a martial arts queen. Hitting her peak with the Shaw Brothers martial arts comedy, My Young Auntie, winning many actress awards, she has gone through a variety of genres via supporting roles, from comedies to crime thrillers and romances.

But in 2009, she had a career resurgence and that is thanks to her collaboration with Malaysian director Ho Yuhang. The result is At the End of Daybreak, which was a nihilistic, downbeat drama that won Wai many actress awards and brought her back to the spotlight.

Now, we have their second collaboration with Mrs K, which is being marketed as a swan song to the action career of Kara Wai. Will the final product live up to the marketing as well as in comparison to the accolades of At the End of Daybreak?

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The film starts off with the grisly deaths of three men: a loan shark (Dain Iskandar Said) who is sliced to death in his office; a priest (Kirk Wong) who is hacked to death in the confessional booth and a retiree (Fruit Chan) who dies in his own swimming pool.

We then go ahead to an unnamed rich housewife (Kara Wai), who is married to a gynecologist (Wu Bai) and is the mother of a lively young girl (Siow Li Xuan). The housewife is then tracked by a sleazy private eye (Tony Lau), who is convinced that the housewife (along with other associates) is responsible for a past crime in Macau.

Also on her trail is a psychotic man (Simon Yam) looking for revenge on the housewife, alongside his henchman (Faisal Hussein). The two kidnap the housewife’s daughter, which forces her hand to confront her violent past whilst trying to save and protect her family in the process.

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For those who have seen the trailer for this film, thinking that you’re going to get an action-packed thrill ride will probably come out of this film a bit disappointed. But the final result is more of a crime drama that has several effective action scenes, a very odd sense of humour and a definite Tarantino influence that surprisingly works more than it annoys, as it makes the film a fun, stylish experience that packs more of an emotional punch than necessary..

The musical score adds to the fun as it is quite reminiscent of Spaghetti westerns as well as the scores of John Carpenter films. The cinematography is smooth and fluid, yet it can get appropriately gritty and dirty when the action starts, which adds a sense of menace to the film.

It is also clear that director Ho Yuhang is a fan of genre cinema, but in particular, Hong Kong cinema, very similar in feel to Teddy Chan’s kung fu/crime flick Kung Fu Jungle. Casting many Hong Kong veterans in fun roles, employing a retro feel in terms of the action as well as showing the many facades of Kara Wai’s filmography in her starring role.

In the scene where you see Kara Wai for the first time, she already shows a paternal side, a funny side and a tough, commanding side, all in the same shot. That alone shows that Wai is given a role that can be fitfully described as a satisfying role that encapsulates her career perfectly. And funnily enough, that basically is Mrs K in a nutshell.

As for the other actors, they are all good in their roles and it certainly helps that most of the actors are cast amusingly against type and/or convention. Besides Simon Yam (who does psychotic like only Simon Yam can), Siow Li Xuan makes a good impression as the surprisingly resourceful daughter (who’s a training martial artist!) who won’t take being a damsel as an option, while Tony Lau plays an amusing version of the sleazy, vile characters he has played of late i.e. in Revenge: A Love Story. And oddly enough, Wu Bai is surprisingly convincing (as a gynaecologist of all things!) and he has one of the best moments in the climax that addresses the meta casting of the film. But the biggest impressions goes to the cameos from the three directors (Chan, Wong and Said) in a scene in the final act that can only be described as something out of a fever dream.

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But for those wondering about the action scenes in the film, there are less than people might think, but they are convincing in some surprising ways. First of all, the fight scenes are more brutal than balletic and the editing and camerawork certainly reflects that. Kara Wai puts herself through the wringer with her scenes, as she fights people half her age and twice her size to great effect.

Second of all, the film addresses the age of Wai and it does so in a refreshingly subtle fashion. None of it is said or addressed out loud, but is seen through the actions of the character. Whenever she jumps and lands from a tall height or blocks an attack, she winces in pain and we feel for her every single time, which adds much needed tension and suspense.

As much as I enjoyed the film, I did expect it to have a little bit more action and a little less reliance on plot and pathos. In the 90 minute run-time, the focus towards plot and its machinations are little more than mere digressions and it drags the pacing down quite a bit and the ending of the film is more of a emotional crescendo rather than a physical one, which can be a bit ill-fitting. But really, that all comes down to expectations.

Overall, Mrs K is a fitting end to the action career of Kara Wai, a fun crime drama in its own right, with good action scenes, some very amusing moments of odd humour and a sheer love of genre film that director Ho Yuhang conveys throughout, particularly during the end credits. Just temper your expectations a bit.

Quickie Review

PROS

Kara Wai of course

Surprising action scenes

Committed supporting cast

Odd, yet fitting sense of humour

Subversive moments of storytelling

CONS

Those expecting a pure action film will be a bit disappointed

Too much focus on plot and character than necessary

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kara Wai, Simon Yam, Wu Bai, Siow Li Xuan, Faizal Hussein, Tony Lau, Fruit Chan, Kirk Wong, Dain Iskandar Said
Director: Ho Yuhang
Screenwriters: Ho Yuhang