Mrs. K

Hong Kong (2016) Dir. Ho Yuhang

All good things have to come to an end and for Hong Kong film legend Kara Hui, Mrs. K – allegedly – marks her final role as an action star. The latter part needs to be stressed as Hui has made two more films since this one, only with less physical demands, so as far as kicking butt goes, this stands as Hui’s swan song.

Mrs. K (Hui) is a typical middle classed housewife, happily married to a gynaecologist (Wu Bai) and mother to a teenage daughter (Siow Li Xuan). During a barbecue party, Mrs. K is approached by ex-cop Monkey (Tony Lau Wing) accusing her of being involved in the robbery of a Macau casino 15 years back and tries to blackmail her over it.

Actually, Mrs. K was part of a criminal gang that did rob a casino in Macau but it went wrong when one of them, Scarface (Simon Yam), betrayed the others and was shot by Mrs. K, left for dead. Except Scarface didn’t die and is back for revenge. Having already dealt with the others, Scarface gets Mrs. K’s attention by kidnapping her daughter.

Taking a cue from Liam Neeson (he was 55 when he made Taken), Kara Hui is doing her bit to show age means nothing when taking revenge and at 56 years of age, Hui does this wonderfully in this otherwise by-the-numbers genre flick. You won’t find the same frequency of action in Mrs. K as in Neeson’s films, but what there is offers sufficient satisfaction.

Instead of dragging out the twist of Mrs. K not being an average housewife, Ho wastes little time in letting the cat out of the bag. In the opener, two young delivery boys try to rob our demure protagonist at gunpoint in her own kitchen, only for her to slap them around and make them clean up the mess they made!

Meanwhile three men – a priest (Kirk Wong), a retiree (Fruit Chan) and a loan shark (Dain Said) – are all brutally killed by a mystery assailant. Nothing connects them to Mrs. K at first with Scarface remaining a shadowy figure for the first half of the film, leaving his dirty work to a couple of degenerate lackeys and stoic brute Tano (Faizal Hussein).

Even after the abduction of her daughter, Mrs. K is none the wiser as to why she is being targeted or who is behind it, but her dormant criminal instincts resurface, this time put to use for good – well sort of. Once it becomes clear what they are up against both Mr and Mrs. K reconnect with some old contacts for a little “assistance” but ultimately go it alone.

Interestingly the past is brought up via relevant conversation and not through the usual flashback sequence, and this exposition isn’t forced or contrived either. For example, Monkey doesn’t show up just to conveniently get the plot rolling then disappear (well, he does disappear but in a way congruent to the story), whilst it is later revealed that Mr. K is aware of his wife’s past so there are no secrets on that front either.

Perhaps the most effective use of this tactic is in the late second act when Mrs. K returns home to find Scarface there waiting to cook her dinner. They reminisce over the past and the fateful night that tore their friendship apart, dropping a few home truths in the process. It might sound surreal (not the most surreal moment either), but it is a perfect illustration of how mentally and brashly dangerous Scarface is.

Much of the script follows many typical beats of the kidnap story, from a vain escape attempt by the daughter to Mrs. K being so close yet so far in getting her home, but Ho and co-writer Chan Wai-keung have fun by adding little subversive twists to make them feel fresh and defy our expectations, up to and including the tragic surprising ending. Some choppy editing upsets the rhythm of the final act but this only adds further the direction of the climax.

Having the mother as the aggressor and central hero quickly transcends being a topical gimmick; the husband is never emasculated and the emotional vulnerability of Mrs. K stops her from suddenly morphing into a vengeful killer. Her age is only subtly alluded to – she gets hurt, cut, beaten and bleeds, making us wince and feel her pain – the strength of her maternal instincts further defying any signs of her middle-aged years.

This applies as much to Kara Hui too who, after a 40-plus year career remains a dominant presence and defiantly able in her fighting scenes despite this being her last hurrah. Rock star Wu Bai as Mr. K looks like he is punching above his weight with Hui as his wife, newcomer Siow Li Xuan makes an impressive debut whilst Simon Yam is in top evil form as Hui’s best sparring partner and equal in onscreen presence.

Director Ho has only a few feature films on his 20-year CV so to get the cast the calibre he has is quite the vote of confidence. Ho is clearly a student of Hong Kong cinema, not just in how he follows the constructs and tricks of the action thriller and but in casting three noted directors in cameos roles. Also of note is the Spaghetti Western style music soundtrack and similar styled font for the closing credits, either a nod to or a dig at US Asian film appropriators like Tarantino.

It would be easy to bemoan the slow-ish pace and focus on plot over action in Mrs. K but that is point in establishing the difference in emotional reaction of a strong mother over a bull-at-the-gate father in a kidnap situation. And if this is Kara Hui’s last action film, she goes out in furious and brutal style, throwing down the gauntlet for today’s female action stars to follow that!