Finding that balance between seemingly disparate genres is something of a specialty for South Korean filmmakers. They can combine action, espionage, romance and the flat-out bizarre into one story in a way that eludes most Hollywood filmmakers (Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy, The Handmaiden & Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, Okja for example). Most often the “romance” angle is clearly slapped on and not at all organic to the story. In the case of Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess, the director finds a way to blend these genres together into one of the most zealful and poetically violent films of the year.
Synopsis: “Sook-hee is a trained assassin who was born to kill. She was just a little girl when the training started in Yanbian, China. After the death of her mentor, when the chance of starting a new life was given to her, she came to South Korea as a government agent. They promised her that she will be free after ten years of service. So she begins her new life as a theatre actress. But soon two men Joong-sang and Hyun-soo appear in her new life. And she started to find deep dark secrets about her past. Eventually she take matters into her own hands.”
The Villainess seems to be S. Korea’s answer to films like Hardcore Henry and John Wick, but with a more lyrical sense of style and execution. Following Sook-hee’s journey from an early O-ren Ishii style quest for vengeance, through the world of trained assassins and finally into a hope for normalcy disrupted by a (nonliteral) ghost from her past is enthralling for the audience both in terms of emotional weight and the flat-out bad ass action sequences the director lays down. Again, it’s rare to see a film maintain that level of tension and quality in both the action and the character/storyline aspects of a film.
From the get-go, The Villainess comes at you hard with a brutal-af first person action sequence. This camera style can be seen as gimmicky and already played out, but Byung-gil Jung uses it very sparingly and to achieve a very specific effect (if only understood in hindsight). At first it just seems like a well-executed FPS type action piece, but we soon learn that Sook-hee’s motivations for attacking the drug den are so enraging it enacts a kind of “tunnel vision” in her that the director portrays through first-person perspective. She’s so blind with hatred, rage and vengeance that her body just becomes a vessel for violence; placing the audience in her head (and not showing her face at first) helps to convey that sense of detachment that she’s feeling.
World-building is an important part of any genre piece like this and The Villainess does it quick n’ dirty. Nothing is tediously over-explained and the audience is given just enough to put the pieces together themselves. Especially interesting was the director’s take on an “assassin school” – this could have been an entire film unto itself. As Sook-hee shows unusual aptitude for this line of work, she garners a lot of attention, both good and bad. Her handler (portrayed by Seo-hyeong Kim) is ridiculously cool and excels as the hardened veteran who has “seen it all.” The assassin school becomes a touchpoint for the rest of the film as Sook-he becomes a sleeper agent out in the real world.
As dizzying as the story and genre-mixing already are for this one, The Villainess’ editing take it a step further. This isn’t some Disney-esque “light action” film where you can tweet while watching it. The way the director jumps back and forth between present and past truly engages the audience and brings every story and emotional beat together in a non-linear fashion, like a jigsaw puzzle (which can be frustrating for some who want a more straight-forward story). Aside from the time-jumps, the pacing of the film keeps tensions high. Even in what many will see as the “romantic” parts of the story, there’s an underpinning of deceit that makes it feel more like a spy movie than a soap opera.
Lastly – the action, something no doubt the majority of people will come to this movie expecting plenty of and it does deliver. Aside from the Hardcore Henry-esque opener, The Villainess takes you on a whirlwind tour of nearly all your favorite action subgenres: better-than-Bourne espionage, hand-to-hand combat/gunplay, snipers, car chases and a sword fights on motorcycles! This film has everything and some of the most creative camera work is used to capture it all!
There is literally a scene where Sook-hee steals a car and knocks the windshield out of it so she can steer the car while sitting on the hood. And that’s not even the most bombastic sequence in the movie.
You could spend hours analyzing the director’s color schemes, thematic undertones and distinctive camera work, so the film isn’t all flash/no substance, but for anyone who watched movies like John Wick 2 or Atomic Blonde and thought to themselves, “That’s great! That’s our kinda stuff! [/Curly Bill voice] But I want something even MORE fierce, outlandish and a little more artsy,” the Villainess is out there waiting for you.
The Villainess just came out on VOD so check it out and let us know what you thought on Twitter @official_FAN