The 2017 New York Asian Film Festival is underway, and we at ComicsVerse will be there to share all our favorites from the fest.

THE VILLAINESS (4 out of 5 Stars)

Hey, are you tired of waiting for Marvel to make a Black Widow movie? Well, director Byeong-Gil Jeong basically went ahead and made one for you. It’s hard not to think of everyone’s favorite ex-KGB agent when Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim) attempts to escape from her shadowy captors only to walk into a room full of ballerinas mid-rehearsal. It is these gloriously surreal moments that make THE VILLAINESS such a stand-out action thriller.

Sook-hee is “the Villainess” of our title. Despite her violent nature, she is very much a victim of circumstance. Two separate groups pull her back and forth. They see her as a tool of violence rather than a human being. The tangled web of violence traps her. What Sook-hee truly cares about is discovering who killed her father and protecting the life of her newborn baby.

To try and summarize the plot of THE VILLAINESS in full would be a futile gesture. The film is full of reversals, double crosses, and revelations. However, the central performance from Kim keeps the film from collapsing under the weight of its cat’s cradle of a plot. Kim breathes a raw humanity into Sook-hee and elevates the entire film in the process.

CLICK: R-rated action films are making a comeback! Click here for our analysis!

Often female action heroes are presented as stoic badasses, so it’s refreshing to see one that’s allowed to be emotional and a warrior at the same time. The audience’s empathy towards Sook-hee becomes the anchor for the film. There’s also a surprisingly tender romance between Sook-hee and Hyun-soo (Jun Sung) that rests on their delightful comedic chemistry and the black ops screw ball nature of their romance. And while Kim likely did not do all of her stunts, I fully believe the ferocity she displays on-screen.

Speaking of ferocity, let’s talk about these fight scenes. Jeong is a former stunt man, so the guy knows action. However, it clearly was not enough for him to film these fight scenes in a conventional way. The film’s bravura opening fight uses first-person perspective as Sook-hee charges through a hallway of goons. While the obvious reference point is first-person shooter video games, there’s a level of intensity that the smoothed-over graphics of a game can’t provide.

This unique choice of angle is certainly admirable, but it can sometimes be disorienting to watch. The key to every good fight scene is a clear sense of geography. So it’s a bit disappointing when Jeong’s innovative camera techniques sometimes come at the expense of spatial clarity.

That being said, those actions sequences work like gangbusters. You will have your jaw on the floor wondering how they pulled off these fight scenes. When the camera pulls away from the first-person perspective, it becomes a participant in the action choreography. Action buffs bemoan the use of shaky cam in modern action movies, but Jeong has discovered a way to keep the camera moving without sacrificing total visual clarity.

THE VILLAINESS will draw you in with its bone-crunching fights, but it will win you over with its intriguing world-building and tremendous main character. Sook-hee is a female action hero for our times. She rebels against the forces who want to deny her agency. In a baptism of blood, she is reborn and becomes a worthy entry into the growing canon of female-led action film heroes.

EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2 1/2 out of 5 Stars)

Good things come to those who wait. EXTRAORDINARY MISSION may not quite live up to the superlative of its namesake, but it definitely delivers a finale of balletic bullets and guts you’d expect from a Hong Kong action film.

EXTRAORDINARY MISSION is another entry in the “undercover cop” genre of action/crime film. The fact that it comes from Alan Mak, director of INFERNAL AFFAIRS (the original film that would become the basis for the American film THE DEPARTED) might excite some. That being said, EXTRAORDINARY MISSION doesn’t quite reach the level of tension you’d expect from its pedigree. Its action sequences and character development simply don’t hold up to its predecessors in the genre.

Lin Kai (Huang Xuan) is the undercover cop in question whose cover is nearly blown when an arrangement between a crooked cop and a low-level drug peddler goes south. This is EXTRAORDINARY MISSION’s biggest flaw: it’s more concerned with new plot details than delivering exciting action sequences. That lack of action tends to make the characters suffer as well. They end up being too thin to really care about.

Consider John Woo’s classic HARD BOILED. In Woo’s film, the plot is punctuated with action sequences that help us understand who the characters are and what their skills are. We root for them because we see them kick so much ass. EXTRAORDINARY MISSION is certainly not lacking in background. Lin Kai, for example, is dedicated to stomping out the drug trade after his mother’s overdose, but the motivation is thin and doesn’t feel as if it’s enough to carry the character through the film.

It’s a grim motivation that’s indicative of the film’s self-seriousness. There’s little room for levity or humor in this film. The few moments of action that punctuate the film leading to the finale show the potential for a more exciting film below the surface.

CLICK: Want more South Korean film recommendations? Click here for our review of OKJA!

In between those brief action moments is a plot primarily revolved around Lin Kai trying to win the trust of drug lord Eagle (played by a gloriously sinister Duan Yihong). However, Lin Kai never seems to be particularly convincing. Eagle rarely shows him any real level of trust, so there’s little tension built up in these scenes beyond wondering when Eagle will finally make his move against the cops.

This is probably why EXTRAORDINARY MISSION’s most interesting component ends up being its villain. Eagle is a cobra waiting to strike at any moment. Most undercover cop movies end up containing heaps of dramatic irony that make the audience feel smarter than the villain. What makes Eagle feel so dangerous is that you’re never sure just how much he knows at any given moment. He’s always one step ahead of the good guys even when it seems as if he is playing into their hands.

What keeps the film from being a total wash is its exciting final sequence. In this scene, Mak stops teasing and cuts loose on the action. You’ll get more than your fill of shoot outs, car chases, and motorcycle stunts. Not to mention stunt work that blows the majority of American films away.

Mak’s choice to place the majority of the action in a sun drenched slum gives a great view of each and every action beat. Poor lighting or over-editing does not hide any of the excitement. If you have the patience, you’ll get some enjoyment from EXTRAORDINARY MISSION. If you’re expecting to be bombarded with action, you may find yourself checking your watch.

Check out the rest of ComicsVerse’s coverage of the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival!
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