Thanks to such dazzling and deeply dark films as Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Mother, and I Saw The Devil, South Korean thrillers make cinephiles worldwide drool in anticipation of stories as twisted and electrifying as they are gut-wrenching. It’s an intimidatingly high bar, but writer/director Jung Byung-gil deftly clears it with The Villainess, a revenge thriller that chases a fascinating female assassin through fragile love and shattering heartbreaks.
Forget babying an audience with backstory. Jung hurls his into the fray with an out-the-gate action sequence that sprawls through hallways, stairwells, and windows with gunfire, slings of swords, and generous sprays of blood. Adding a kinetic edge, most of this melee is shot in first-person POV., mimicking first-person shooter experience of video games (or the polarizing action experiment Hardcore Henry). The camera whips us through mayhem and violence, deftly establishing the titular killer Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin)–only seen as out-lashing limbs of force and fury–as a near invincible warrior. But once she’s captured by government agents, the fight is out of her. She begs only to die. As The Villainess slingshots between frantic flashbacks and and Sook-hee’s vexing present, we learn why, while a tale rich with tragedy, tenderness, and betrayal unfurls.
As a young girl, Sook-hee’s fearsome fate was sealed when she witnessed the murder of her beloved, jewel-thieving father. Dedicated to hunting down his killer, she joins a band of assassins lead by the dashing Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun). Despite this grim setting, she blossoms and finds love. But this too is ripped from her. She’s conscripted into a league of government-run female assassins who promise her freedom–and the safety of her young daughter–if she’ll serve as a sleeper cell for ten years. Committed to her child’s happiness, Sook-hee risks her life on brutal assignments, and risks her heart on the handsome but pushy guy next door (Sung Jun). Yet, all this is just scratching the surface of a plot kinked with twists, and at times a wee bit convoluted with throwaways about plastic surgery and a thread about her “cover” as a stage actress. Nonetheless, The Villainess is one hell of a ride.
[Sook-hee] is a vision of violence and femininity, spinning with ferocity and grace, even as she’s making a mess of tattered flesh of any foolish enough to cross her.
Whether she’s pitching herself into dizzying fight scenes, shooting ruthless glances at suspicious men, or crumbling into long-withheld tears, Kim is positively riveting as this conflicted assassin, who harbors both a death wish and a burning desire to live beyond her deadly obligations. The script–co-written by Jung Byeong-sik–doesn’t bog Sook-hee down with monologues of moaning or explanation, trusting instead in Kim to carry the emotional weight of scenes through her trembling eyes, knitted lip, and the occasional pointed barb. She is a vision of violence and femininity, spinning with ferocity and grace, even as she’s making a mess of tattered flesh of any foolish enough to cross her. It’s just a shame that Jung doesn’t show such restraint in his direction.
Regrettably, The Villainess is a bit garish in its gimmicks and spectacle. Among its highlights is a mind-bending sequence of near-escape, where Sook-hee whirls through the government training facility from hospital-like cells into a bright ballet dance lesson, then into a chef slaughtering a flounder as students look on snarking, next into a Shakespearean stage production, all the while her eyes wild with a feral will to survive this bizarre nightmare. Less successful are the outright fight scenes. First-person perspective shots, fish-eye lenses, and high-contrast colors clumsily aim to bring energy to a pace that shudders as it leaps from past to present and back again. While this nonlinear storytelling occasionally allows for a slick visual cut, it more often seems an unnecessary obstacle to understanding Sook-hee’s already complicated life story.
Jung is generous with his action sequences, a choice that’ll likely thrill martial arts fans as Sook-hee kicks ass and slits throats with intensity and aplomb. But as it true with the works of Park Chan-wook, and Bong Joon Ho, it’s the gnarly emotional reveals of The Villainess’s climax that has the biggest impact. In the end, our petite and pretty assassin goes all out in a battle with her greatest enemy, who is not only a threat to her life, but to her hear and soul. The fight flings recklessly from ornate halls to precarious perches, slippery streets to a speeding bus. And all the way, it’s not the swishes of the blade that sting the most, but the devastating dialogue that hits our heartbroken heroine to her very core. Then, in its final moment, this deranged drama gives us one last chilling wallop!
Despite its indulgences and occasional rough turns from slow sentimental sequence to wrathful action extravaganza, The Villainess is an ambitious, exhilarating, and harrowing film that does South Korea’s tradition of top-notch thrillers proud.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com