Doing for Hong Kong screen veteran Kara Wai roughly what Tarantino did for Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown” (albeit with a lot less talking), Malaysian writer-director Ho Yuhang’s “Mrs K” is a stylish action movie whose light touch persuades us to accept still-lethal potential of a nearly 60-year-old heroine. Equal parts “Taken”-style thriller and old-school marital-arts/triad-meller homage, it’s expertly crafted good fun that should appeal to genre fans across many borders.
Wai (AKA Kara Hui and Wai Ying Hung) was still a teenager when she found fame via a slew of Shaw Brothers kung-fu epics starting in 1976. Since then she’s gone on to play a wide range of roles on the big and small screens, including an award-winning turn as an alcoholic divorcée in Ho’s own 2009 “At the End of Daybreak.” As the titular figure here, she gets to straddle both a dignified latter-day dramatic image and slightly tongue-in-cheek action-figure persona, pulling it all off with seemingly effortless aplomb.
After an opening in which three seemingly very different men are each dispatched by an unseen visitor, we’re introduced to Mrs. K — the very picture of wholesome domesticity as she spends an afternoon baking in her rather luxurious, gated suburban home. When she’s interrupted by a couple of would-be robbers posing as delivery boys, this outwardly innocuous hausfrau turns the tables on them with such ease that one suspects she’s had more experience throttling men than feeding them curry buns.
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Indeed, a checkered past soon comes back to haunt her when a sleazy ex-cop (Tony Lau Wing, one of several additional casting blasts from the past) turns up uninvited at a house party, claiming he knows all about her role in masterminding a “legendary Macau casino robbery” 15 years ago. Before he can follow through on his blackmailing plan, however, he himself is offed by some other ruthless types even more eager to track down the elusive Mrs. K, who met her obstetrician husband (Taiwanese rock star Wu Bai) when she was first exiting the criminal life. These higher-grade bad guys (led by Simon Yam’s Scarface, with Faizal Hussein as his vicious sidekick) kidnap the couple’s teenage daughter (Siow Li Xuan), holding her hostage in a remote area in order to lure the Missus into their trap.
Ho and Chan Wai Keung’s clever screenplay eventually brings in yet a third set of rival underworld figures to complicate matters further. But the potential clutter and preposterousness of the story is nicely countered by direction that maintains a drolly poker-faced tenor most of the time — albeit one punctuated by outbursts of furious, messy violence. Those latter are excellently staged by action choreographer Adam Chan. They’re also gamely enacted by a star whose fighting-trim appearance is nonetheless wisely belied by acknowledgements that Mrs. K is no longer quite so limber as she used to be.
With its colorful cast (ranging from Hong Kong Second Wave director Fruit Chan to rising next-generation stars in briefer roles), highly eventful plot and contrastingly rueful, often low-key tone, the film balances flamboyance and realism with tricky assurance. Those looking for one spectacular action setpiece after another may find it too slow. But Ho’s restraint ensures that when things do escalate, the impact is felt.
Adding more layers to a smartly designed overall package is a score by Malaysian band Fugu, which incorporates as the title character’s musical motif a vintage spaghetti western theme by Franco Micalizzi and Roberto Pregadio.