Mark Reviews Movies

The Villainess


2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jung Byung-Gil

Cast: Kim Ok-vin, Shin Ha-kyun, Bang Sung-jun, Kim Seo-hyung

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 2:09

Release Date: 8/25/17 (limited); 9/15/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 14, 2017

It opens with carnage—relentless, unabashed bloodshed using guns and, once the ammunition runs out, knives. The fighting is mostly captured from a first-person perspective, staged with logical progression by director Jung Byung-gil and shot with the usual jitteriness by cinematographer Park Jung-hun.

A long hallway figures into a good portion of the sequence, allowing for the typical one-at-a-time strategy that nameless henchmen employ to their predictable defeat (It makes a little sense here, at least, given the narrow space in which they have to fight our protagonist). Knives are thrown. Doors are smashed into bodies. A shotgun blast is lazily dodged. At a certain point, the woman doing all the killing has her face smashed into a mirror, and at that moment, the camera uses the reflection as an opportunity to pull back from the subjective point of view.

Now we get to see her in action, as the camera weaves in and out of the fighting without any restraint. Whatever's around becomes a weapon, and since the last stage of the fight takes place in a gym, that means a dumbbell and a jump rope, which the heroine uses as a whip, before implementing it as a noose—her body weight and gravity serving as the forces that will end the life of the boss who obviously did something to this woman.

The something that was done is the key to the lead character of The Villainess. We think we have it figured out after learning that her father was murdered over a single, stolen diamond. We think we've learned the reason when we discover that her husband, the head of a criminal organization who taught her how to kill so effectively, was also killed while the two were on their honeymoon. We think we know when a lot of other terrible things happen to her in the present day, but do we really know? More importantly, do we have a reason to care?

Jung convinces us that there is a reason to care after the opening fight, as Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is arrested. Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong), the head of a super-secret intelligence agency, is convinced that Sook-hee would serve well as a sleeper agent—living under a given identity and activated to assassinate various targets. Jung intercuts her training at the agency with flashbacks to her childhood—seeing her father murdered in front of her, seeking out the family friend who betrayed her father, being placed in a speed game to assemble a pistol before the man in front of her can shoot.

The point is that Sook-hee has, in her mind and in the minds of everyone she has ever met, never had any other choice but to be a killer. During her attempt to kill the man whom she believed killed her father, Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), the head of that crime syndicate, saved her, and to pay him back, Joong-sang transformed Sook-hee into a killing machine.

Now, Sook-hee is being held again, paying back yet another debt to which she never agreed. This time, it's to the intelligence agency, which messes with her mind while in training and in the real world, where her new neighbor Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun) also works for the agency. He's supposed to keep an eye on her, but naturally, he falls in love and becomes like a father to Sook-hee's daughter, who was born while she was in captivity.

There's a lot of plot here, obviously. After a while, all of those flashbacks, which at first were revealing of Sook-hee's origin as a killer, become more and more informative of a complex, confused, and uncertain plot of killing, deception, and betrayal. The screenplay (written by the director and Jung Byeong-sik) loses its bearings on helping us to sympathize with the main character, because it would rather keep us wondering who to trust, who to suspect, and who is behind everything that has gone wrong in Sook-hee's life. It's a movie of murky morality that becomes clearer but, in the process, forces us to consider the past and present twists, instead of the hows and whys of Sook-hee. It becomes more about the story surrounding Sook-hee than about her. The middle section, then, becomes a bit of a confounding slog of flashbacks and, in the present, a story founded on ultimately ineffective melodrama (especially since the story's final revelation makes everything so simple).

The highlights are the movie's surprisingly scarce action sequences, from the opening, which is so kinetically involving that it's easy to ignore that we don't know anything about Sook-hee at that point, to a climactic chase/fight involving a hijacked passenger bus. Like the beginning sequence, the finale is shot in a one-take (It's hard to tell if it's a real or a fake one), as Sook-hee chases the bus in a car, drives that car from the hood, and leaps to the bus. It's impressive stunt-work, as well as camera operation, and the same can be said of a seemingly routine motorcycle chase that suddenly becomes a swordfight—while the combatants are still riding their bikes.

As remarkable and innovative as these sequences are, they're few and far between. That wouldn't be so much of an issue if The Villainess were as invested in the lead character as it is in the plot and the action.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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