The Villainess (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 124 minutes approx.
It seems that someone in South Korea’s film industry finally read the e-mail about women now being pushed to the forefront of action cinema in notoriously misogynistic Hollywood. After the success of Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde and Lucy, director Jung Byoung-Gil addresses the balance in his homeland.
Opening with the 8-minute single take slaughter of a bunch of lackeys and their ruthless boss in a gym, we are introduced to Sook-hee (Kim Ok-Vin), a rather angry young Chinese-Korean woman seeking the man who killed her father. After this bloody work out, Sook-hee passes out and wakes up in a compound run by the National Intelligence Service. Here, Sook-hee is given plastic surgery and trained to be a government agent.
Having given birth to daughter Eun-hye (Kim Yun-Woo) at the facility (she was pregnant on arrival) Sook-hee is rechristened Chae Yoon-Soo and is allowed to live in a small apartment in Seoul, where she now works as an actress. At the same time, Hyun-soo (Sung Joon) moves in as Sook-hee’s neighbour, an undercover agent keeping an eye on her. They fall in love and get married but on the day of the wedding Sook-hee is given a hit to carry out which she fails to accomplish, with disastrous consequences.
Korean’s major box office hits in the 1970’s were largely female centric affairs, but the subsequent move away from associated genres like romance and light comedies has seen their presence become secondary to their male counterparts in other genres. Occasionally an action film with a strong female lead would surface – Lady Vengeance, My Wife Is A Gangster and Princess Aurora spring to mind – but The Villainess hopefully marks the start of a new breed of kick-ass ladies.
Sook-hee’s story is rather typical of the action genre and of the female protagonist if we are honest, lacking any real complexity beyond a wronged woman seeking revenge, but Jung’s script does attempt to flesh it out with some neat morsels of intrigue, notably the truth behind Sook-hee’s father’s death, the catalyst for this whole saga.
It is not fully disclosed if her father (Park Chul-Min) was necessarily a bad man but he was brutally betrayed by his best friend, something the young Sook-Hee (Min Ye-Ji) witnessed firsthand whilst hiding under a bed. She managed to escape this situation with the help of a man named Lee Joong-sang (Shin Ha-Kyun), whose name she never asked but years later, when all grown up, became his wife until he was killed trying to find her father’s killer.
This brings us full circle to the staggering open sequence and Sook-hee’s time as a trainee fighting machine, where her combat prowess, sharp shooting skills and mental acuity see her prosper. However, Sook-hee’s life after this as a single mother and stage actress allows her capacity for empathy and emotion get the better of her, something her stern faced superiors frown upon.
By trusting her heart yet still possessing the guile of a secret agent, Sook-hee tends to miss the more vital clues in the game she is a mere pawn in, until it is too late. A bit like Rambo in First Blood, when someone feels they’ve been let down by everyone and everything around them, they tend to react in the most dangerous manner possible, and if that includes the person who really killed their father then you know the brown stuff is about to hit the fan.
And hit the fan it does in truly remarkable, claret soaked fashion. Korean cinema is notorious for its gleefully violent abandon and we certainly get our money’s worth in this film. But what makes it truly engaging in this instance is the presentation. The first person POV perspective of the opening sequence plays out like a video game with just a pair of weapon adorned hands shown as being responsible of the multiple on screen deaths.
It is only when the perpetrator (Sook-hee) is thrown into a mirror five minutes in that we see her face for the time then the angle changes to the fourth wall, yet staying within the same shot! Think the corridor scene from Oldboy or the staircase scene from Tony Jaa’s Warrior King then amp it up to 11 and you have this fabulous and memorable moment.
Jung maintains this visual flair throughout, carrying it on during a high speed motorbike chase/fight right up to the exciting climactic showdown, which begins in a restaurant and spills out onto the freeway on a moving bus! The camerawork is nothing short of magnificent in this closing sequence and again appears to be done in one take, switching seamlessly from a number of perspectives at breathless high speeds without faltering.
The editing is superb too, transitioning smoothly from one scene to another in a different timeline from a point in one continuous shot where it realistically shouldn’t, the fluidity and sheer skill of which does put a question mark over the aforementioned single takes in the fight sequences. Either way, it is s shame these achievements won’t be recognised at the Oscars since there is very few, if any, Hollywood films this year that can hold a candle to the technical merits of this opus.
Kim Ok-vin makes a welcome return to the big screen after a few years away in the wilderness, a talented actress who should be a marquee name by now. Her casting was inspired, not just because of her martial arts skills but because she can act, bringing equal weight to Sook-hee’s human side and her stoic killer side. Plus she is utterly gorgeous, so less discerning male viewers can buy into the “kick-ass chick” fantasy if the human drama aspect doesn’t convince.
Anyone dismissing a violent female action lead as a gimmick is clearly missing the point. The Villainess doesn’t necessarily re-write the action rulebook but does put a defiant stiletto heel through its heart and refuses to pull it out again. You go girl!
2.0 LPCM Stereo
5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Audio commentary with Filmmakers and Critics Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin
Rating – ****
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