Fans of female led assassin movies such as “Kill Bill”, “Nikita”, should really pay attention to “The Villainess”.
Fantasia Festival 2017 Review
It has been a long time since we have seen anything quite this good with respect this area of the genre. South Korean action/thriller fans will be satisfied too because while it adopts many of the same characteristics as the previously mentioned films, it retains the South Korean intensity and level of violence that has been missing in recent years.
From the outset, we are treated to a captivatingly stylish mash-up of POV violence as our assassin makes her way down the hallway, in a scene that could’ve been lifted out of Oldboy or The Raid. Fountains of blood piss out of the gangster’s necks, up the walls and over the camera, each one falling victim to our currently faceless woman’s attacks.
At the end of this brutal opening scene, we see Sook-hee (played by Kim Ok-bin), staring directly into the camera, as I sat there aware in the knowledge that this movie has just made a hell of a statement, practically sick with excitement for what could come next. To give away too much of Jung Byung-gil’s movie would be criminal since most of what is intriguing about this is the sheer unpredictability of it all.
Sook-hee is taken after this brutal opening sequence, and takes on a life of a sleeper cell for the government, not before graduating from some bizarre assassin boarding school for girls. All the while we see the storyline jump back and forth with increased frequency between past and present day, somewhat confusing at first. Still, these offer harrowing glimpses as to why Sook-hee was carrying out those attacks, why she is able to fight how she does, and laying the foundations for the twists and turns throughout the final acts.
It’s this almost mythical story but based in reality, that ultimately manifests South Korean protagonists as unstoppable killing machines that I love so much. When it’s told correctly, it’s captivating cinema. The second half of the movie does fall a little short in places because while it is unpredictable, there are elements that could have been tightened up.
The multiple flashbacks do make it difficult to keep track of what timeline we are viewing, and the extended love story becomes tedious at times, in what could be perceived as a trite attempt to demonstrate the tired stereotype of “how emotional women get”.
Our once self-assured and determined heroine is now unable to make a confident decision at all. The aim here I assume was to create an even greater emotional investment in Sook-hee, and while the payoff was one of pure horror, the route to it felt like a path of unnecessary drama.
I was already invested in the situation, the vengeance angle, the ambition to lead a normal life, but what materialised was something much more melodramatic. The violence is plentiful, skillfully choreographed and ranges from a sword fighting motorbike scene to an axe-wielding bus face-off. Similarly, the editing and cinematography support the intensity of these scenes with slick continual shots that get embedded into the action.
These are often contrasted with moments of juxtaposed symbolic beauty and brutality, such as carrying out a sniper attack in a wedding dress or engaging in a knife fight as a Geisha. Each of these sequences plays an important part in the story, it never feels like it’s just violence for the sake of it, no matter how over the top some of it is. Intense and nail-biting moments aplenty, these are the clear highlights of the movie.
Overall, Jung Byung-gil’s “The Villainess” is a good return to form for South Korean action-thrillers. While the storyline is simple yet told in an overly complicated way, it serves its purpose to form a solid foundation for this revenge movie. For the action sequences alone, this can rank very highly among some of South Korea’s classics, but you may find yourself zoning out during the soap opera style drama that occurs in the latter half of the film. Nevertheless, I found plenty to enjoy, and I hope this paves the way for more female-led fuck ‘em up movies – we need a lot more of these in our lives.
Words By Mark Blakeway