The bodies hit the floor in Jung Byung-gil’s action-thriller.
“Consider yourself dead and live for me.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of The Villainess, Jung Byung-gil’s 2017 action film, when the trailer first hit the internet. It had already won a bunch of awards, but it also reminded so much of films like Naked Solider, and that was really something I didn’t want to see again. Because of this, I put off watching it until it suddenly appeared on Netflix. Was it going to be something as awful as that Sammo Hung abomination, or would I be pleasantly surprised?
Well, it’s clear from the stunning opening scenes that The Villainess was not going to be another Naked Soldier, which came as a relief. It stars Kim Ok-bin as Sook-hee (or Yeon-soo, depending on who you ask, and when), a skilled assassin who is looking for revenge. But for whom? We learn she has been trained as an assassin since a young age, having been looked after by her mentor Joon-sang (Shin Ha-kyun). She is taken by a shady government organisation while pregnant and made to work for them. Meanwhile, she meets Hyun-soo (Sung Joon), also a government agent working as a spy, and everybody dies.
For such a straightforward story, it’s surprisingly all over the place. In the first half an hour, there is little really ground us which ends up feeling like the events happen in a world that might not necessarily be anything like ours. However once Sook-hee is given her first assignment and she moves into her own apartment, we start to see more of the world outside the facility and that’s when the movie’s reality starts to take shape. It’s a shame that this only happens in the film’s second quarter, but once it does ground itself the film definitely takes a turn for the better.
The out-of-order storytelling that dominates the plot also contributes to the film feeling like it isn’t particularly mired in reality. The constant flashbacks (and flashbacks-within-flashbacks) are a narrative choice that you’d think would peter out after the first few minutes, but just keep coming relentlessly. It’s a curious choice, but one that surprisingly works well for The Villainess, if feels a bit much near the end. It’s difficult to make a good climax when we’re constantly bouncing across the timeline.
Director Jung has put a lot of effort into giving the film a sense of realism. The camerawork in the action sequences are shaky and all over the place, but in a way that feel real and not out of place in something like John Wick (in fact, the motorcycle sword fight in the second quarter feels like Parabellum did some serious borrowing). The result is a collection of fight scenes that actually feel like you’re there – shifting your attention left and right as obstacles, guns, punches and knives are all thrown towards you. It’s something in between the nausea-inducing work of Paul Greengrass and the smooth gliding camerawork of Chad Stahelski.
The Villainess is a film that’s very much all over the place, in ways that are both good and bad. The story is seemingly straightforward, but it’s told in such a clusterfuck way that it’s difficult to keep track of where we are or who we’re with. Keeping it all together is a highly talented cast, and Kim Ok-bin especially is able to go from one aspect of her character to another, effortlessly switching from a battle-worn Sook-hee to an innocent, confused one in seconds. As an action film, it does lots of stuff differently technically and stylistically (its action moments alone are great), which allows it to stand out from the crowd and helps bolster its reputation and likeability. If you want something fast-paced, done a bit differently, with a kick-ass female lead and some excellent violence, then you’d be a villain to miss this one.
Verdict: Inventive in places, and rote in others The Villainess is a highly entertaining piece of action cinema.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Opening: An excellent FPS-style set piece
Backstabs: Like a million
Ways to die: Sledgehammer to the head is definitely not my choice.
Title: Not so much a villainess, but it’s catchy
The Villainess (2017)
Also known as: 악녀 (Aknyeo)
Director: Jung Byung-gil
Writer: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byeong-sik
Kim Ok-bin – Sook-hee
Shin Ha-kyun – Lee Joong-sang
Sung Joon – Jung Hyun-soo
Kim Seo-hyung – Kwon-sook
Jo Eun-ji – Kim Sun
Lee Seung-joo – Choon-mo
Son Min-ji – Min-joo
Min Ye-ji – Sook-hee (young)
Kim Yeon-woo – Eun-hye
Jung Hae-kyun – Jang Chun
Park Chul-min – Sook-hee’s father
Kim Hye-na – Training female rookie