Director: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byeong-sik
Cast: Kim Ok-vin, Kim Seo-Hyung, Shin Ha-Kyun, Bang Sung-Jun
Runtime: 2 hrs 9 mins
Rating: M18 (Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 13 July 2017
Synopsis: Since she was a little girl, Sook-hee was brought up to become a deadly assassin. She gets a second chance in life when South Korea’s Intelligence Agency’s Chief Kwon recruits her to become a sleeper cell. Her new identity is Chae Yeon-soo, 27 years old, theater actress. With a promise of complete freedom after serving the country for 10 years, Sook-hee begins a new life. For someone who lived a life of a killer, living a normal life is no easy task. But when 2 men appear in her life suddenly, she uncovers secrets of her past…
‘The Villainess’ begins with a giddy six-minute long, single-take opening sequence shot and seen largely from a first-person perspective. The fact that we are given literally no prior context as to how and why this is unfolding is proof of the confidence that writer-director Jung Byung-gil has in the sequence per se; and boy oh boy is it breathtaking to watch. Beginning with some 50 to 60 gangsters in identical dark suits being slashed, stabbed, hacked, punched and kicked along along a narrow corridor, the action moves into a gym with about half that number of growling bruisers, where finally we get to see just who has been doing all that bloodletting. Surprise, surprise, it is a woman no less, fuelled ostensibly by unbridled rage, who finishes her spree by wrapping a climbing rope around the neck of the last of her enemies left standing, leaping out of the window while grabbing one end of it, and landing safely onto the rain-drenched alley some three stories below.
If that made you go ‘wow’, then writer-director Jung Byung-gil’s brutal revenge thriller will be right up your alley (pun intended); but if you found yourself nonplussed, then you frankly need not bother with this action-driven star vehicle. Indeed, despite an elaborate backstory that explains just how our eponymous female protagonist Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) acquired her skills and accumulated her belly of vengeance, ‘The Villainess’ really exists for its dynamic action sequences – a thrilling motorcycle chase in the dark of night midway through the film which has her fending off five other masked assailants with swords, while riding at breakneck pace down a highway tunnel; and last but not least, a bravura showdown that sees her duelling mano-a-mano with her arch-nemesis using a pair of long knives, drive an SUV with the back of her hand while perched on its hood, jump onto the back of a speeding bus and finally hack everyone else on board who stands in her way.
Although we’ve seen such similar brutal one-on-one/ one-against-many fights in other genre actioners such as ‘The Raid’ and ‘John Wick’, Jung amplifies the intensity of Kwon Gui-duck’s choreographed action with his preference for handheld camerawork, POV shots and rapid-fire editing that puts you in the heart of the action. It does make who’s attacking who a little less easy to figure out from shot to shot, but there is no denying that the experience is a lot more visceral and even edge-of-your-seat gripping. Between the three major elaborate action sequences are a handful of smaller but nonetheless exciting ones, including a break-in cum assassination at a mansion that precedes the motorcycle chase as well as a botched assignment that has Sook-hee and a fellow female agent dressed up as geishas attempting to steal some information off two cut-throats in a traditional Japanese restaurant.
To Jung’s credit, the narrative in between the fights isn’t just meant as filler; on the contrary, Jung tries to work up our sympathies for Sook-hee in a story that resembles Luc Besson’s ‘La Femme Nikita’ in more ways than one, what with Sook-hee being blackmailed into enrolling as a secret agent for the Korean government in exchange for a normal life with her daughter Eun-hye and eventually falling in love with a regular neighbourhood guy Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun) after graduating from agent school. As it turns out, Sook-hee isn’t a villainess after all, not even an anti-hero, but a victim of her circumstances: through multiple fragmented flashbacks, we learn how Sook-hee as a child witnessed her father being shot and bludgeoned in the head while hiding under her bed, was subsequently rescued and trained as an assassin by mafia boss Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun) and eventually comes to marry him. It is Joong-sang’s apparent death at the hands of a rival criminal organisation that sets Sook-hee off on her rampage at the start, but it isn’t any surprise that he will turn up in the middle act to threaten the new life she tries to build with Hyun-soo and her daughter Eun-hye.
Derivative though it may be, the plot at least remains involving throughout during the quiet, bloodless moments. Credit for that belongs as much, if not more so, to Kim, best known before this for toplining Park Chan-wook’s ‘Thirst’ – the petite actress not only gives an impressively physical performance, but calibrates her emotional range affectingly to switch between a cold-blooded killer, a vicious fighter, a loving mother and a cautious but caring girlfriend in the course of the film. As calculated as the scenes between Hyun-soo and Eun-hye may be to get us to appreciate Sook-hee as a normal human being driven by the desire to have a normal family and a simple life, they are no doubt effective thanks to the tender chemistry between Kim and Bang, which keeps you invested in the budding romance developing between them. The other supporting players are also well-cast, including Kim Seo-hyung as Sook-hee’s no-nonsense handler Chief Kwon and Shin as the manipulative, unconscionable villain you’d love for Sook-hee to exact bloody vengeance on.
But credible though the acting and engaging though the narrative may be, ‘The Villainess’ ultimately exists as a showcase of the heights of Korean action cinema, which is most likely how it had landed a slot at the coveted Cannes’ Midnight Screenings last year. True enough, the two set-pieces which bookend the film and the motorbike chase in the middle are inventively conceived/ choreographed and impeccably executed. It is also a testament to Kim’s own hard work, who performed all the stunts herself during a gruelling 70-day shoot. Like we said before, how much you enjoy ‘The Villainess’ will depend on your appetite for brutal and bloody action; but if you’re a fan of such hardcore, gritty stuff, you’ll surely be in for a treat.
(The brutal and bloody action set-pieces are inventively conceived/ choreographed and impeccably executed, which is probably all you need to know if 'The Villainess' is the type of movie you'll enjoy)
Review by Gabriel Chong