the villainess

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition we take a look at some underseen Asian action films from the past ten years.)

2017 has already been one heck of a year for action movies with the likes of John Wick: Chapter Two and Atomic Blonde delighting theatrical audiences while others including Free Fire and Plan B (my favorite action film of the year so far) wowed festival goers. The rest of the year holds promise as well, with the upcoming release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Jackie Chan’s The Foreigner, and Gerard Butler’s Geostorm…never mind. I can’t even finish that joke.

One of the year’s best, Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess, is hitting theaters in limited release this week, and if it opens near you I must insist you buy a ticket, have a seat, and prepare yourself for two hours of beautifully choreographed action, ridiculous plot turns, and even more fantastically entertaining action. It’s a memorable ride and adds to the argument that we’re in the heyday of action cinema with many of the best coming our way from Asian shores. Keep reading for a look at some of the best recent action films from Japan, Cambodia, China, and elsewhere that you probably haven’t seen.

hard revenge milly

Hard Revenge Milly (2009, Japan)

When a family is targeted by violent thugs, the intruders forget rule number one and foolishly leave someone alive. Milly is wife to a murdered husband, mother to a slaughtered infant, and filled with a rage that can only be calmed by revenge. Bloody, bloody revenge.

This Japanese feature is actually two films – Hard Revenge Milly and Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle – and combined they only run roughly two hours, but it’s a fluid shift from first to second and feels every bit like a singular experience. The first half focuses on Milly’s immediate quest for revenge while the second part sees the narrative expand to include a trio of visitors seeking their own revenge, some of which is aimed her direction. Painful drama and surprising story turns rear their head, but action remains the focus throughout.

That action is elevated by Miki Mizuno’s fierce and fearless lead performance that sees her execute brutal and eye-catching fight choreography with skill and style. We get fights with fists, knives, and more, and while its slickly impressive, it’s also wonderfully messy thanks to the practical bloodletting magic of Yoshihiro Nishimura. Geysers of blood spurt and arc through the air, with every wound adding an over-the-top feel to the the film’s more serious moments. It’s affecting, funny, and utterly thrilling.

Hard Revenge Milly (double feature) is available on DVD from Amazon.

confession of murder

Confession of Murder (2012, South Korea)

A detective chasing down a serial killer finds only a slashed face instead as the murderer escapes into the night. The statute of limitations on the crimes expires fifteen years later, and the cop is surprised to see the killer step forward into the limelight with news of a book deal. Things only get stranger from there.

This one admittedly reached some eyeballs here in the States, but I wanted to include it as it’s director Jung Byung-gil’s precursor to The Villainess and arguably even more of a blast. It jumps right to the chase, literally, by opening with a extended foot chase through alleys and restaurant windows and across walls and rooftops. The camera glides beneath cars, leaps out windows, and stays with the two runners throughout the five minute scene, and it manages more thrills and suspense than many Hollywood action films do in their entirety.

The fancy footwork shifts into some ridiculously entertaining (and just plain ridiculous) car chase action, and the film goes on to find time for laughs, real suspense, and even some commentary on the cult of celebrity. It’s a tale of hard-edged cop vs twisted serial killer, and while it doesn’t reach the level of I Saw the Devil or Memories of Murder – it’s having far too much fun for that – it manages to carve a niche of its own as it melds intense drama, exhilarating action, and honest heart into one hell of a ride.

Confession of Murder is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.

hwayi a monster boy

Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013, South Korea)

Five criminals kidnap an infant boy and raise him as their own. It’s a tough life as the men lack the basic emotional skills, but they each teach him their more illicit crafts over the years until as a teenager he discovers a truth about his birth parents that splits his adopted family apart.

Director Jang Joon-hwan’s long awaited follow-up to 2003’s Save the Green Planet is every bit as dark and twisted, but ups the ante on the thrills in glorious ways. It’s as close to genre perfection as you’re likely to find with its heady mix of suspense, heart, drama, comedy, and blistering action. Those action scenes – shootouts, fights, and a wonderfully crafted car chase – are both frequent and excellent enough to qualify the film as a pure action thriller, but while it’s wholly satisfying in that limited frame, the film succeeds as something far richer. In addition to fleshed out characters and sharply scripted events, the film gives thought to the psychology of violence on both the perpetrator and the victim in ways that are unusual for a genre picture.

At over two hours, the film features an abundance of crowd-pleasing moments that punctuate a series of dramatically compelling characters and rewarding sequences. It’s crazy good and pure entertainment… violent, sweet, cruel, joyous and remarkable entertainment that delights darkly with nearly every frame.

Hwayi: A Monster Boy is available to watch on Amazon Prime.

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