By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Featuring a number of action set-pieces that are executed with brutal energy and jaw-dropping ingenuity, The Villainess may not completely succeed as a whole, but the sum of its parts will leave audiences both dazzled and exhausted. Though it does borrow liberally from many action films that have come before, this high octane effort still manages to leave its own mark, in more ways than one.
The story gets off to a wild beginning with what is the film’s defining set-piece (which has been compared to the memorable hammer fight scene in Park Chan-wook’s iconic Oldboy), involving the title character hacking her way through dozens of armed henchmen. Utilising both firearm and blade, this unstoppable killer exterminates an entire gang across numerous sections of a multi-story building, barely taking a breath as she exacts bloody vengeance on these intimidating thugs. What makes this ten minute sequence such a brilliantly overwhelming tour-de-force is that it is almost entirely shown from the assailant’s point-of-view, only cleverly changing its visual perspective near the conclusion of the violent assault.
The person filled with hate and revenge is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), who is quickly arrested by police after her extravagant act of mass-slaughter is over. Sook-hee’s exploits attracts the attention of Chief Kwon-sook (Kim Seo-Hyung), who works for a secret government agency. Seeing the unstable Sook-hee as a perfect weapon, Kwon-sook forcibly recruits her to be trained as an elite assassin. The bemused rookie also discovers that she is pregnant.
While she is taught various skills in the art of carefully executed liquidation, as well as taking care of her infant daughter, Sook-hee is monitored by ambitious young agent Hyun-soo (Sung Jun), who wants to be working undercover out in the field, and seems to hold a special fascination towards the growingly accomplished operative.
Once on the outside, Sook-hee is given a new identity and a place to stay. Unbeknown to her, Hyun-soo has been assigned to watch and report on what Sook-hee does and how she handles her assignments. Playing the likeable neighbour, Hyun-soo quickly works his way into the lives of both Sook-hee and her young daughter, but the goals of his mission are soon clouded by personal feelings.
Matters are complicated further when the past suddenly catches up with Sook-hee, in the form of ex-husband and criminal boss Joong-sang (Shin Ha-Kyun), who we discover is the one who honed Sook-hee’s fighting skills, instructing her as a child after her father was murdered by unknown intruders right in front of his terrified daughter. It won’t be long before Sook-hee’s past and present will violently collide.
The Villainess openly wears its influences on its sleeve. From Takashi Ishii’s Black Angel films, Stephen Shin’s Black Cat, and the South Korean mega-hit Shiri, to of course Luc Busson’s classic La Femme Nikita, Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, there isn’t much plot wise that we haven’t seen before. Director Jung Byung-gil tries to offset the familiar plotting by fracturing the narrative to a substantial degree, but it’s an approach which somewhat distances the audience from the developing drama, muting the relationship between Sook-hee and Hyun-soo, while also draining the intrigue that surrounds her connection to Joong-sang.
This convoluted structure could have been overcome if the characters were fully realised, but the script by Jung and Jung Byung-sik is under-written, never fleshing out these flawed people as much as we would like.
Director Jung, who made his directorial debut in 2008 with the enjoyably matter-of-fact documentary Action Boys (about the South Korean stunt industry), then followed it up with the popular action/thriller Confession of Murder in 2012 (which has just been remade in Japan), certainly wants to deliver on-screen action in a way we have not encountered before. Though the POV technology has been seen recently in films such as the excruciatingly awful Hardcore Henry and the poorly structured Kill Switch, they never used the format in a manner that was gripping or genuinely purposeful. Jung exuberantly employs this state-of-the-art equipment with committed creativity and imagination, and the innovative results are truly extraordinary, providing movie-goers with some of the most excitingly staged and choreographed action scenes ever seen. One just wishes Jung was as adept at delivering solid drama as he is at supplying adrenaline-pumping mayhem.
High praise must go to cinematographer Park Jung-hun for his stunning, gravity-defying work, and editor Heo Sun-mi, who fuses all this hyper-kinetic footage together with virtuosic skill. There is also an effective music score by Koo Ja-wan.
Kim Ok-vin, who burst on the scene in Park Chan-wook’s provocative vampire thriller Thirst (and co-starred in the under-rated The Actresses), is an utterly believable bundle of unbridled energy as Sook-hee, and she even manages to evoke some emotion during the story’s under-developed dramatic moments. Nicely balanced opposite Kim is Sung Jun, who offers an appealing performance that is a much-needed safety valve between all the blood and destruction. Kim Seo-Hyung is suitably cool as Kwon-sook, while Shin (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Big Match, The Game) is okay in a role that doesn’t allow this seasoned actor to shine like we know he can.
The Villainess is a super-charged action/thriller that occasionally runs off the rails, faltering when it tries to focus on domestic drama and past romances, let down by a script that is unable to give its characters genuine depth and insight. What it does have however is a mesmerising leading lady, ingenious technical staging, and passionate direction, all combining to create some of most incredible big screen action you will ever experience.