Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon
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If you are a fan of action movies or Korean cinema, The Villainess is a must-see.
Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is arrested by Korean police after having single-handedly murdered 60 men in a violent revenge spree. Taken on by her country’s intelligence agency, she is promised her freedom in return for 10 years’ service as a government-controlled assassin. Once in the field, however, her violent criminal past returns to haunt her.
The Villainess, the latest film from rising directorial star Jung Byung-gil, is a profoundly stylish and bluntly violent action thriller. When screened at the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks ago it was received with a four-minute standing ovation. It is not difficult to see why: while the film adheres a relatively formulaic storyline, its action sequences are some of the most original and effective I have seen in some time. Jung uses a combination of lurid colourful lighting, fish-eye lenses and editing tricks to bring the viewer closer to the fighting than I think any film has managed before. It is blindingly chaotic, and in some key moments visually incomprehensible, but that all seems to just further amp up the kinetic sense of energy and rage. Whether it is a first-person perspective brawl down a corridor, a sword-wielding duel on motorcycles or a geisha-costumed knife fight, the action is tremendously fast, bloody and effective.
Jung spaces out the action quite carefully across a two hour film, using the rest of his time tell a slickly developed but rather conventional story. The premise of the film is effectively Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990), a film already remade in the USA (Point of No Return, 1993) and Hong Kong (Black Cat, 1991) and adapted twice to television (in 1997 and 2010). There are other influences as well, notably fellow Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, and while it is clear this is a fairly derivative story it is well performed throughout. Flashbacks peppered throughout the film illuminate Sook-hee’s tragic past, and inform her actions in the present. They are initially somewhat disorientating, and not particularly well signaled, but as the film goes on events and characters begin to fall into place and start making a rough kind of sense.
Kim Ok-bin is excellent in the lead role, successfully juggling the demands of a fairly emotional and melodramatic story with the rigours of all the fight sequences. Featuring alongside her are Bang Sung-jun as Hyun-soo – a fellow agent assigned to seduce her and monitor her behaviour – and Shin Ha-kyun as Joong-sang – the criminal who took an orphaned Sook-hee in, trained her, and ultimately married her. Both are very effective, using a broad cocky charm and a cool, understated demeanour respectively. A real highlight is Kim Seo-hyung as Kwon-sook, Sook-hee’s ice-cold government overseer. She gives a comparatively subtle performance, given the emotional mayhem undertaken around her, but does so with great amounts of depth and authority.
While it seems inevitable that conversations about The Villainess will dwell on its bravado action scenes, it is important to appreciate just how strong the performances and the direction of the rest of the film actually is. It may tell a familiar story, but it tells it exceptionally well. If you are a fan of action movies or Korean cinema, The Villainess is a must-see.