Director: Jung Byung-gil
Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Kim Seo-hyung, Sung Joon, Shin Ha-kyun
Plot: Sook-hee (Ok-bin) has a violent and disturbing past, perfect for a shady organisation of assassins to manipulate to their whim.
Korean cinema has always been an original source of action cinema. Oldboy reinvented the fight scene and while it the boundaries have been pushed to extreme lengths since then (see the Raid or Atomic Blonde), the origins of this style of cinema can easily return to Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece. However, there has really been another movement since. Until the Villainess. While the opening segment opens like a pastiche of other fight movies (although done very well), it grows into something new, inventive and utterly brilliant.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is the Villainess, the new Korean action flick that has the Cannes Film Festival in a buzz, actually about? You can quite easily leave this film and not be too sure yourself. One flaw, perhaps the only flaw, The Villainess definitely suffers is the overly complex narrative. It isn’t so much the actual plot, which, while fairly extensive, isn’t too ground-breaking or mind-bending, but the story-telling style director Jung Byung-gil adopts. There is the standard jumbled chronology at play here. We open in the thick of the action (literally – the very first shot is a gripping shoot-out), and flashback to the ‘whos’, ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ later. But there isn’t too much of an order to these flashbacks. Early on, you might not realise if you are in a flashback or not, which really hurts your understanding of this story from the off. While there is a satisfying slow reveal about what is going on, you really do need to focus in to truly realise the horrors of what is actually happening. The flashback’s chronology is just as jumbled as the main plot, so you end up scrabbling away to connect the pieces in your mind, made difficult by the fact that even more chunky exposition is being piled on top. By the end of the film, you are pretty much willing to settle into the action and accept it as mindless violence. Whittled down, the plot of Villainess looks as though it had potential. A vengeful woman, with the martial arts techniques of a trained killer, is found beaten to a pulp at a crime scene of her making and adopted by a mysterious organisation. They seem as professional as a black-ops government team, but are closer to a cult of sleeper agent assassins. They teach their female operatives professions, release them into the real world in their chosen career and call on them to carry out assassinations, while in their deep cover. The organisation is another part of the story that could have done with more explaining. Are they a shady wing of the government? Or a very efficient group of bad guys? Again, just take it on the chin that they are bad-ass, but not totally trustworthy, and dive back into the film. This story does open up to a rather interesting relationship between lead heroine, Sook-hee, and her nervous neighbour, Jung Hyun-soo. Hyun-soo is actually a plant from the agency, although during his time masquerading as her love interest, he genuinely falls in love with her. She is initially mistrustful of his advances, but grows fond over time. However, she believes she needs to hide her past life as a contract killer from him. Despite their secrets, they do have a lot of chemistry as a couple; it is nice to see the director feel confident enough in his story that he can hang up the action scenes for an extensive period and tell a charming love story, between two unlikely characters.
But again, you are here for the action. And that is what Villainess as strong as it is. There are two incredible punch-ups, one at the start of the film and the other at the end, which are so alarmingly choreographed, you marvel at how they pulled it off. Cynics will grumble at the fact the fights suffer from the Bruce Lee rule of gangs of bad guys only attacking two at a time, but the actual fights are wonderful gruesome. There is bone-snapping, bloody knifing and one particularly gruesome death where one guy is hung out of a window. And that is only in the first five minutes. Later, there is a wonderfully shot motorcycle chase that defies the law of physics. This is not a film for those seeking a sense of realism. However, it definitely keep the heavy middle ticking over, stopping you from losing touch with the foreign language movie. Other small pockets of action come in the form of two geisha girls taking out some well-trained targets and a small sword-fight on a staircase of a house. It is the small flourishes that impress, like a bad guy changing sword hand mid-fight or sometimes, something as simple, as a particularly nasty grapple. None of these hold a candle to the finale however, which takes the craziness of the opening act and doubles it. The camerawork is magnificent, partially tracking shot, but also a touch of surreal off-the-wall jerkiness. It makes every punch and throw feel all the more powerful. When a bad guy is kicked across a room, the camera reacts to the contact, so you can almost feel the sensation of being tossed around. It is a majestic sensation. I am not even going to spoil the exact conditions of the final punch-up, as discovering it for yourself is half the fun of the Villainess. But you will not be disappointed.
Final Verdict: For those that love innovative action, or film-making in general, The Villainess is a definite film to seek out.