The Villainess Review
(Aknyeo, 2017) immediately bursts onto the screen in a flurry of punching fists, flailing weapons and splattering gore, the camera’s first person point-of-view letting us see through the eyes of an unknown assailant as they easily cut though a sea of bad guys. It is an opening sequence so raw and technically incredible that you’re instantly hooked, finding yourself wide-eyed and slack-jawed at how it was ever achieved. And this is all before we’re even properly introduced to the female assassin doing all the ass-kicking.
Part revenge tale and part action thriller, this is familiar territory for those who’ve seen Oldboy (2003), The Raid (2011), and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Oldboy a particularly obvious comparison due to it’s similar cryptic, vengeance-fuelled plot. While it would be simple to dismiss Byung-gil Jung’s film as being exactly the same as these, The Villainess quickly becomes its own fascinating beast, something achieved by its noirish story leanings and an intriguing, dazzlingly fierce central character whose gender is refreshingly never questioned or sexualised. Rather Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim) is simply a woman hell-bent on revenge, a quest put on hold when she finds herself caught by a shady organisation who insist they only want the best for her – a second chance at life while also working for them. Of course she soon finds that there is more to this proposal than meets the eye.
Writer-director Byung-gil Jung isn’t forthcoming with information on who this woman is though, drip-feeding us glimpses into Sook-hee’s chequered past through interwoven flashbacks that sit seamlessly alongside the main narrative. And even then we always seem to be two steps behind what is happening, his and co-writer Byeong-sik Jung’s tale continuously twisting and turning until we don’t know who to trust. This complex storytelling approach can often be confusing to follow, but ultimately makes the end result all the more rewarding when the pieces do start to fall into place. It also gives The Villainess its compelling edge, keeping us gripped rather than painfully waiting for the next spectacular action sequence.
As impressive as the story is, it is these fight scenes that stay in your mind long after the film ends. From that opening, to a brawl in a Geisha house, a motorbike chase and a final pulse-racing highway pursuit, each is as incredible and inventive as the last, stunning and seemingly impossible choreography making each of these moments stand out amongst similar action films. Byung-gil Jung’s direction makes these sequences thrill even more through the use of inexplicable long takes, weaving the camera in and out of the fighting and placing us right amongst the carnage, blood splattering on the screen to really add to the feeling of being right alongside Sook-hee as she shoots, stabs and punches her way through each scenario.
Ok-bin Kim is brilliant in these moments, easily taking on the fast-paced choreography that is demanded of such a role, yet is also able to add a much-needed vulnerability to Sook-hee when the emotional side of the narrative calls for it. Her multi-layered performance is what makes the character wholly believable – a woman who is allowed to be a woman but whose day job just happens to be killing people. Despite her gravitas though, some may find the romantic angle that begins to emerge in the second half of the film a little too hard to swallow, especially when the melodrama during these times seems to be cranked up even more than the action.
This strand of Byung-gil Jung’s film is forgivable though when compared to what The Villainess is overall: an adrenaline-fuelled spectacle with the added bonus of a fascinating story. While there are many aspects that make this an exhilarating watch from start to finish, it is those stunning set pieces that stay with you and ensure you’ll want to visit Sook-hee and her world time and time again.