Director: Jeong Byeong-gil
Writer: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byeong-sik
Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung, Jo Eun-ji, Lee Seung-joo, Son Min-ji, Min Ye-ji, Kim Yeon-woo, Jung Hae-kyun
Running Time: 129 min.
By Martin Sandison
Some action movies come along that define a generation, or represent the cream of the crop when it comes to their respective Nation’s output at the time. Titles such as John Woo’s indescribable adrenalin rush of a movie Hard Boiled and Tony Jaa’s era-defining Ong Bak spring to mind. Early word about The Villainess had some critics saying it redefined the genre; I took this with a pinch of salt, and rightly so. While containing some action scenes that push boundaries and should be applauded for there technical mastery, the film falls flat in the middle section. It’s such a shame because the opening and ending are beautifully rendered in their brutal dance.
Sook-Yee (Kim Ok-bin) is an assassin, trained with other females for a secret organisation. She gets the opportunity to leave and starts a new life in Seoul after ten years of service. However her past and present collide due to men she becomes involved with, and the threads of the narrative start to converge with Sook-Yee’s vendetta explained.
The fractured style of the narrative, despite making sense in the end, I found confusing and off-putting. The film constantly shifts time frames to the point where the viewer is left befuddled as to what the present of the story is. The Villainess opens super strongly, with a 10-minute, unbroken (CGI cut) take which, a la Hardcore Henry, is a POV shot. While coming across less video-gamey than the latter, there is still an element of silliness to this sequence that took me out of the film as a viewer. The choreography, however, is top notch; moving from gunplay to knife exchanges – then back to gunplay – the frenetic power and savage ferocity is impossible not to love if you’re a fan of the genre.
The aesthetics of the opening 30 and last 20-minutes of The Villainess create a wonderful atmosphere, one where manga-inspired angles and measured compositions sit beside the action. Shamefully, the middle section abandons these and goes for a washed out, aesthetically bland look that only compliments the cheesy contents of the narrative. The plot here concentrates on Sook-Yee’s romantic entanglements and attempts to lead a normal life. It’s like watching two different films.
Thankfully, the acting across the board is uniformly great, especially Kim; she captures the emotional rollercoaster her character goes on brilliantly, despite a couple too many scenes of her breaking down. A very different role from her previously well known part in Park Chan Wook’s underrated vampire drama Thirst, she dazzles in both.
Kim is reunited with Thirst co-star Ha Kyun Sin, who plays Sook-Yee’s former husband. His character is formidably menacing both physically and psychologically, and provides some superb chops in the final fight scene. Jun Sung appears as another love interest and does a decent job, contributing some welcome slightly comic relief in the middle section, while also appearing in the most over the top scene. Special mention goes to Kim Seo-Hyeong (The Berlin File) as Sook-Yee’s boss, who steals every scene she’s in.
The Villainess – after receiving a 4-minute standing ovation at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, not to mention early press buzz – is a disappointment. However, it is one that features some heart in mouth moments and absolute mastery of action. Director Jung Byung-gil, previously known for the well-regarded action thriller Confessions of Murder, is evidently one to watch in the genre. There are numerous standout moments, not least a katana fight whilst the actors are actually riding on motorcycles, and the previously mentioned opening and ending scenes. Unfortunately, all the wildcard brilliance of these sequences are let down by the approach to narrative and schmaltz of the middle section. See it for the action.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 7/10