Villainess, The (2017) Review

The Villainess | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

The Villainess | Blu-ray & DVD (Well Go USA)

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

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3 Responses to Villainess, The (2017) Review

  1. Andrew Hernandez says:

    It’s a shame to read that the middle section is bland. I liked Atomic Blonde a lot, so I would be happy if Villainess is just as enjoyable.

  2. Martin Sandison says:

    Andrew, I enjoyed Atomic Blonde too. Aesthetically it’s much more cohesive than The Villainess, but the action in the latter is far superior

  3. Andrew Hernandez says:

    I rented the movie on Vudu, and the action was indeed really good. The performances of the cast were all top notch, and I liked the story. I didn’t feel like the middle section dragged very much, because I wanted to get to know the main characters, but the out of sequence flashbacks did hurt the narrative.

    But I think Villainess’ biggest problem is how depressing it is. Despite being this visceral experience with high octane action, I felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel and no hope.

    I know his isn’t unusual for Korean cinema, but movies like Oldboy have a point with their depiction of tragedy while I missed it here.

    SPOILERS
    After everything Kim has been through, watching her father get murdered, falling in love with his murderer who used her, being used by the agency, her adorable kid gets murdered, and then she goes to prison for the rest of her life, and she doesn’t even get the satisfaction of killing the bad guys.

    I also didn’t like how after becoming a trained killer and honing her skills more with the agency, she was still beaten by her ex twice and had to resort to desperate measures.

    It’s the equivalent of The Man From Nowhere ending with the kid getting butchered and Won Bin losing at the end and going to prison.

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