THE VILLAINESS (2017)
Highly-stylised, vivacious action thriller boasts some inexplicably brilliant set pieces and outlandish stunt work when a female assassin is set upon a blood-stained revenge path
One of the more enjoyable side elements of watching The Villainess is attempting to fathom quite how they manage to achieve some of the action on display.
Director Jeong Byeong-Gil began his career as a stuntman, working with other stunt actors, before eventually making a documentary on the profession. The Villainess and its stunt-filled format seems to be a natural consequence of effectively having one of the stunt team in the director’s chair.
The Villainess does not so much start, than explode out of the blocks with one of the most breath-taking opening scenes in the history of Korean cinema. Using largely point-of-view shots, we join the vision of a trained assassin laying waste to an army of underground enforcers.
Much of our genre expectations assume we are gazing through male eyes, but the action eventually breaks its point-of-view presentation to reveal the slight frame of Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin, Thirst) doing battle.
We learn that Sook-hee has been trained as a killer from a young age and then coerced into being a sleeper agent for Korea’s intelligence agency. She is promised freedom after a decade of service, but two men from her past trigger a chain of events that unveil a dark history, one she feels compelled to take into her own hands.
The film owes a debt to Oldboy (2003), which considering the brilliance of the source material is no bad idea. With a furious female lead it is also strongly aligned to Lady Vengeance (2005), but the opening corridor fight sequence is very much from the Oldboy playbook. It is a welcome opportunity to see Oldboy’s famous corridor fight from the eyes of the protagonist.
The viewing enjoyment of The Villainess really hinges on how much value you take from those action scenes, as a slightly convoluted plot ensures the film manages to drag its heels when it is not sprinting on its toes. It is very much the action scenes that are the ones imprinted on your memory long after its conclusion.
While that opening sequence is destined to get the long-term plaudits, there are two other superb action set-ups to note. Firstly, a motorbike chase and ensuing fight that uses alarming cameras zooms to build a frenetic feel. Then a further fight on a bus that features some hair-raising near-misses.
One non-action element of the film that does truly work is the engaging central performance from Kim Ok-vin and that is sometimes missed in the noise of the chatter around the film’s action and stunts. There is also a well-executed romantic sub-plot which is both unexpected and engaging.
Sit down for narrative perfection and you might find The Villainess wanting. Strap yourself like you have hopped on a roller coaster and there is enough high-octane action, wild stunts and ultra-violence to keep you going for weeks.