The Villainess, 2017.
Directed by Jung Byung-gil.
Starring Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung, Jo Eun-ji, Lee Seung-joo, Son Min-ji, Min Ye-ji and Kim Yeon-woo.
A female assassin leaves a trail of bodies behind her as she seeks revenge.
Enthusiastically hailed as “the new The Raid” since its Cannes premiere this past May, the second feature from director Byung-gil Jung (Confession of Murder) only suffers from that overzealous comparison. Though it boasts several gloriously balletic action sequences and a highly compelling lead performance, The Villainess is also narratively and technically muddled, with its reach frequently exceeding its grasp.
The less said about the film’s twisted plot the better, but the spine of the story involves expert assassin Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) looking to walk away from her life as a murderer-for-hire, just as her tragic past shows up to make that possibility decidedly more difficult.
It’s hardly the most original set-up, yet Jung gives it an oddly emphasised pride of place in a film that, honestly, would be all the better were its oft-confusing, puzzle-like structure – not to mention its excessive 129 minute run-time – were trimmed down into something more straight-forward.
Jung opts to frequently cut back to Sook-hee’s past without warning, which is jarring – and seemingly intentionally so – and may ultimately leave viewers wondering if they’re paying enough attention or if the movie’s simply being obtuse for its own sake (for my money, it’s the latter).
The film’s great success, at least for the first two-thirds, is its action sequences; the five-plus-minute opening set-piece, shot in Hardcore Henry-esque first-person view, is a gloriously violent bloodbath as Sook-hee hacks literally dozens of assailants to pieces with about as much grace as one could in that scenario. It’s an unforgettable scene, even if it also sets a high bar that the rest of the film can’t even begin to live up to.
A subsequent action sequence involving samurai sword-wielding motorcyclists, however, makes a damn fine attempt, and with its clear casting aside of basic health-and-safety rules on movie sets, is the film’s one apt point of comparison to The Raid series.
The other ace in the hole is Kim Ok-bin, whose central performance is gutsy and emotionally fraught enough that she’s completely convincing dismantling a room of armed men despite her petite frame, and even does a solid job selling some of the film’s more wonky melodrama. Her expressive face holds the screen even through the pic’s more laborious moments, and she never puts a foot wrong.
I mentioned melodrama a moment ago; the thing nobody needed in a movie like this. It would be too spoilerific to divulge much more, but rest assured that what was marketed as a fairly straight-up actioner quickly trades in relationship drama of numerous degrees, some of it successful but much of it simply saddling the film with excess baggage. Adding character shading to an action hero is no bad thing, but here the somewhat treacly, goofy treatment works only about as much as it doesn’t.
Another big issue is the general technical sloppiness. For as sharply crafted as several action sequences are, Jung obnoxiously overuses digital zooming in a rather unsubtle attempt to blend shots together. It’s not quite Birdman, and is often more distracting than if Jung had simply employed a conventional cut instead. Also, Jung makes increasingly objectionable use of rapid-fire editing later in the film, to the point that it conjures up unpleasant memories of Taken 3‘s infamously incomprehensible hack edit job.
What might make or break the film for some who are already wavering, though, is the woefully disappointing third-act finale, a CGI-slathered mess set on-board a moving bus that’s distractingly green-screened into oblivion, and during its more ambitious attempts to interact without the outside world, lurches into unintentionally hilarious territory. Sometimes less is more, and though Jung’s force-of-will to stage something this barmy on a small budget is commendable, the end result is simply too cheap and silly looking to be much convincing.
While it certainly doesn’t live up to the cult classic status it earned on the festival circuit earlier in the year, The Villainess will do the job for those who like their violence harsh and unforgiving. Kim Ok-bin’s terrific performance and the earlier action will make it worth the price of admission alone for many, even if the overall product feels confused and amateur for much of its runtime. A mixed bag, essentially, but one that just about lands on the right side of mixed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.