The Villainess showcases a director to watch, and a film to be seen.
DIRECTED BY JUNG BYUNG-GIL/KOREAN/2017
Jung Byung-gil is a man who trained in Seoul’s famous action school where stuntmen are trained to enter South Korea’s film industry. It has gained an international reputation, but rather than fulfill his training to be a stuntman, Jung Byung-gil decided to step behind the camera as a director. His first film was a documentary of the very school he attended, and was called Action Boys. Since then, he has built a reputation as being a director to watch, who provides realistic set pieces and striking action sequences that are each unique and different, containing plenty of violence, but done almost as a work of art that never feels gratuitous for its own sake, but as if it is serving the larger story.
The Villainess is a film that pulls no punches with its female lead. If anything, the film doubles down on the stakes, the brutality, and the odds in each fight scene, demonstrating that this is a woman who is every bit a man’s equal, and then showing she’s in a class of her own.
The Villainess, or its original title of Aknyeo, is the fascinating action tale of a woman trained to be an assassin from an early age, who is given a chance at a normal life, though she is bent on revenge. The Villainess is a film that pulls no punches with its female lead. If anything, the film doubles down on the stakes, the brutality, and the odds in each fight scene, demonstrating that this is a woman who is every bit a man’s equal, and then showing she’s in a class of her own.
Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) is a woman who has grown up under violence. After watching her father’s murder, she is rescued by a criminal organization led by Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun). As she grows up, she is molded into a perfect killer. Eventually, she marries Joong-sang who is killed on their honeymoon. She becomes a one-woman wrecking crew on the thugs who were responsible, but finds herself in prison and being given an offer by a shadowy agency in the South Korean government. Her offer: be trained to be a sleeper agent, doing missions for 10 years, and she’ll be free to live a normal life with her daughter who she was pregnant with during her honeymoon rampage. With so much blood on her hands, its an offer she can’t refuse.
Kim Ok-vin is a formidable protagonist. Production notes claim that in 70 days of filming, 63 of them were spent with Kim Ok-vin doing intense fighting scenes with multiple weapons, choreography, with multiple opponents in each scene. She did the majority of the stunts herself, without a stunt double, and yet is also able to handle the tender side of this assassin’s character who longs for the life she was robbed of when her father was murdered.
The film is layered, providing needed backstory in the form of flashbacks during various fight scenes, or training sequences. Through these glimpses, we are given the portrait of a complicated woman, and a sense of the demons she carries with her. At times, it may be a strain for the viewer to keep up with it all, especially as new characters are being introduced before existing characters are well established. Eventually, it will all come together, and provides a backstory that helps fashion a deep empathy for the character of Sook-hee.
As this film seeks to involve shadowy agencies and mystery, there are several twists and turns throughout the story. Many may be obvious ones, but they are still effective due to how tight the production and storyline are which create a fun, adrenaline-fueled experience throughout the 2-hour runtime. Other characters are cast well, including Bang Sun-Jung as Hyun-soo, Sook-hee’s next door agent with some secrets of his own. Also featured is Kim Seo-Hyung as Chief Kwon, Sook-hee’s recruiter and handler for the various missions she is sent on. As Chief Kwon, Kim Seo-Hyung is effective at hiding her motivations, or revealing which side she is truly on.
When all is said and done, The Villainess will be remembered for its action. No set piece is choreographed the same, providing much needed variety that keeps the viewer constantly entertained. The opening scene is set up as if its a first-person-shooter experience, cut to look like one long take down multiple hallways with opponents emerging from every angle. Soon, the camera perspective shifts to a more traditional lens, though with tight shots mixed with occasional wide-angles. A motorcycle chase becomes a close-quartered sword fight, and a wedding becomes a chance for a sniper rifle opportunity.
There will be obvious comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill epic as Sook-hee shares some similarities with Uma Thurman’s character of The Bride. Despite some of these similarities that are seen at times in The Villainess, it is clear that Jung Byung-gil’s film has its own voice and identity. All of the praise he has received in the few films he has produced is earned. The Villainess showcases a director to watch, and a film to be seen.
The Villainess is in the Korean language, with English sub-titles.