A fantastic revenge thriller that ups the ante with its complex storytelling and jaw-dropping set pieces.
If there’s any doubt foreign markets are catching up to America in terms of delivering mind-blowing action films, then Korean director Byung-gil Jung’s second narrative feature, The Villainess, should continue that conversation.
Inspired by Jung’s earlier short “Standing on the Knife,” the movie opens with an amazing POV action sequence ala last year’s Hardcore Henry that’s very much like a first person shooter, as a woman takes on all comers with a gun. When she runs out of bullets, she picks up a knife and continues to fend off her assailants. This is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), who has been hell-bent on getting revenge on the man or men that killed her father, something she witnessed as a child. Since then, she’s trained as a government assassin at an elite school that programs young girls to fight and kill, but when she’s brought back to that school, she tries to escape. Oh, and we also learn that she’s pregnant.
From the beginning, it’s obvious director Jung isn’t going to gently hand-feed his audience all the information they need to understand what happens in the film’s opening 20 minutes, as we watch multiple flashbacks to Sook-hee as a girl after being entered into the program. The decision to use a complex and often confusing non-linear narrative may hurt the film’s ability to be immediately accessible to casual action enthusiasts, but at least it does pay off with the action that kicks off the movie. As frustrating as it may be not to know everything right away, all is eventually revealed as the film goes along.
Years later, Sook-hee is ready to be sent on her first assassination, her desire for revenge making it easier for her to be programmed and manipulated by her female supervisor, known only as “Chief” and played by Kim Seo-hyung. After this mission, Sook-hee is allowed to leave the compound with her adorable young daughter, and they set up shop at an apartment building where Sook-hee pursues an acting career, although it’s obvious she’s not really free from the Chief’s machinations.
Director Jung clearly has a secret weapon and a real gem in his two actresses, with Ok-vin Kim playing Sook-hee at a variety of ages using make-up and physical performance. Just as interesting is Kim Seo-hyung as the Chief, who is surrounded by so much mystery about her background and how she got to lead the agency that it’s something you almost wish would be explored in a future film.
An equally interesting aspect of The Villainess are the men within Jung’s film. As Sook-hee and other girls train, they’re watched by slightly older male agents on monitors, as they make sexist banter about the girls they’ll be assigned to as “handlers.” At this time, we also meet Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun), an agent set up to live next door to Sook-hee at her apartment complex. He begins to woo her, first as part of his own assignment, but then getting more serious emotionally. This adds a further layer to Sook-hee having to decide how far to take her own training.
The results are a layered revenge thriller in the vein of Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy, and the type of movie where you almost immediately want to go back and rewatch the first 20 to 30 minutes, knowing the filmmaker has created something that almost demands repeat viewings. Director Jung is yet another Korean filmmaker who has an amazing eye for a shot, so when you see Sook-hee dressed in a wedding gown holding a sniper’s rifle, for example, it just looks very cool.
More than anything, The Villainess thrives on its amazing action set pieces, whether it’s that opening sequence or a katana swordfight on high-speed motorcycles, offering enough variety to really perk up fans of films like John Wick. (Like that film’s directors, Jung originally trained to be a stuntman himself.) The movie does hit a noticeable lull in terms of action once it gets into the second act, but it leads up to an exciting climactic finale once all the pieces start coming together. To say more would spoil the viewer’s enjoyment of trying to assemble this puzzle themselves.
One issue that some Westerners might have with The Villainess is that so many of the characters, both male and female, dress the same with similar haircuts, so that you sometimes can’t keep track of whom is who. Some also may have trouble understanding the intentions of the two “agencies” that seem to be in a never-ending war. That, on top of the film’s intricate and fairly complicated plot, might frustrate some for sure, but all of it does pay off eventually.