Quick Take: After learning about the murder of her newly-minted husband, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) goes on a frantic bloody rampage to wipe out the people responsible – and that’s just the first ten minutes of the film.
In a La Femme Nikita (turned up to 11) turn of events, young Sook-hee lives only to be confronted with the choice to use her already formidable skills as an agent of South Korean Intelligence Agency for 10 years or have the story circulating in the press about her death become a reality.
If you like films featuring driven characters hell bent on wreaking maximum havoc, then you’ll enjoy this film. If you like gritty action movies with dangerous stunts and chase choreography then this movie is right up your alley. If an action movie with a compelling story arc that doesn’t let go until the climax are your thing, then get ready to read subtitles because South Korean Director Jung Byung-gi’s latest offering The Villainess is just what you’ve been waiting for.
The Villainess is a two hour and twenty-four minute bold action drama that that drags the “scorned/betrayed woman” trope directly to the edge of a cliff and sets in on fire before throwing it over the side with glee. Using dynamic movement, hectic pacing (just enough to keep the adrenaline flowing even through the emotional moments), gorgeously shot visuals that are vivid and moody; sets the tone of the movie as it tells a story that wavers beautifully between the ironic, surprisingly humorous, tragically poignant, and magnificently violent.
If you live in San Diego, then your weekend movie watching plans need to change immediately because The Villainess opened today, September 15th, at ArcLight Cinema. Seriously, either plan to make a day of it or head directly to the ticket window and exchange your ticket for the next show time for this film.
If you don’t live in San Diego, cross your fingers and hope your city got a limited run that hasn’t ended. Check your local listings to find a theater showing it then go there now.
I don’t say it often but, if you can’t catch it in theaters, just buy the Blu-Ray or DVD now.
The Villainess is a movie needs to be seen.
The Villainess is one of my top picks for 2017 Indie Action Movies
After a movie watching summer that’s had more “meh” than “magnificent” stories on offer, I gave up on seeing an action movie with a unapologetically badass female lead coupled with a story that had emotional depth, grit, intrigue but didn’t revolve around exploiting the lead in an overtly sexual in a way that skews the movie’s entire premise more towards titillation.
Not enough people with the power to get movies seen trust that a complex woman will be impactful without the “sex and skin.” And far too many think showing a woman fully in control of her sexuality and wallowing in that power is enough to replace emotional dimension and nuance in demonstrating the complexity of a female character.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of Atomic Blonde but it’s irrefutable that super-spy extraordinaire, Lorraine Broughton (and Charlize Theron, the actress who portrayed her), not only wields her sexuality like a finely honed weapon, she leads with it like a savage predator. She – and characters like her – completely own her body and sexuality it’s undeniable. It’s also the least interesting thing to learn or see about them.
Watching this type of woman on screen is a delicate dance of reading between the lines searching (usually in vain) for emotional nuance and ferocious intellect because it’s easy to miss in all the flashing lights. Just how studios like it. And if the character is a woman of color, well then be prepared for an even greater disconnect between her physicality and emotional complexity because heaven forbid she have depth, conviction, intelligence and a dangerous edge outweighs her sex appeal on screen.
Needless to say, when I started hearing rumblings about a film called The Villainess out of South Korea, slated to show at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in May, about a complicated woman who is also physically capable of single-handedly wiping the floor with an entire gang of men in the first five minutes of the movie, the action-movie lover in me was all-in to find out more.
Sook-hee’s young, reckless and convinced she has nothing to live for when she begins her real journey. And despite, not seeing her face for almost 10 minutes of the movie, you can feel her intensity and rage all throughout the fight scenes. Opening the movie with the audience squarely behind the lens (it’s some of the best first-person shooter style camera work in an action movie I’ve seen in awhile) immediately invests you in both the action and the actor you can’t see in frame. This blood-forged connection holds for the entire length of the film.
Her actions land her in the hands of a cunning woman Chief Kwon (KIM Seo-hyung) and she’s soon thrust into immersive training in spycraft. These moment – and those revolving around the ill-fated love story in act two- are the only time The Villainess bears any resemblance to Nikita or any other female spy/assassin film you’ve seen before.
The Villainess seamlessly transitions between Sook-hee’s tragic past and her present to flesh out her backstory and build this world and its players layer by layer until you’ve taken sides and formed opinions about everyone around her. The entire movie is riddled with a whole host of three dimensional – albeit brief onscreen time- female characters whose personalities run the full gambit of types. The scenes during her training are thankfully more show than tell which makes the moments all the more powerful as everyone grows and progresses in this environment. Up to a point, it’s like watching Sook-hee navigate the stages of grief. These portions of the film are all the more compelling given the knowledge that beneath it all rests a deep well of rage and violence just waiting to be triggered.
The script, and story development, caters to and then subtly pokes at gender stereotypes and expected dynamics without tipping its hand or overplaying its silent – yet pointed – commentary. It cannot be missed that an action hero like Sook-hee is somewhat unprecedented in Korea (as well as the rest of the world). As the story progresses and the drama at the heart of all this action comes to the forefront, the acting, by the entire main cast, masterfully conveys its meaning with few words, often anguished looks and bombshell reveals that complicate the narrative even as they trigger conflicting emotions in its players and the viewer.
The Villainess is not just another “cherchez La Femme-esque” spy/assassin movie – even though there are obvious imagery parallels – the story here isn’t as simple as what happens with Sook-hee the spy. Her promise of 10 years service in exchange for a normal life (if she survives) has a much deeper meaning – and hold on her – than anything as simple as quid pro quo. This movie builds its story out of the vicious circle of violence dogging her every step. The moments in the film that aren’t action-packed have their own particular significance because they demonstrate that it’s never safe to drop her guard. Lies and betrayal carry with them their own psyche-forming trauma.
The Villainess aptly displays and explores the role emotional manipulation and trust play in violence and choice. This is far more than just a shoot-em up, kill them all paper-thin deathfest, the story progression is imperfect but makes sense and holds up from beginning to end. Although the end film catharsis is bound to make some viewers uncomfortable because three’s no last minute redemption. Thankfully, this script maneuvers through its dark themes without being bleak or wallowing in the dark moments.
Every step Sook-hee takes toward embracing herself fully is conflicted but she’s consciously choosing to move toward her fate. And for once, the conflict isn’t centered around her being controlled and used as a helpless pawn or reluctant to be ruthlessly violent. From the very beginning, it’s obvious that people are pulling a tiger by its tail with not nearly enough control measures. For every step she takes in compliance with other people’s wishes, she’s always wary and on guard. When Sook-hee discovers the full extent of people’s betrayal and abandonment, she doesn’t fall apart in typical movie heroine fashion. But that doesn’t mean she becomes an emotionless automaton hacking and slashing her way across town. That isn’t to say A LOT of people don’t get dealt with, because cutting down an enemy is something not Sook-hee is conflicted about.
The Villainess offers viewers a chance to watch a steady paced, action-driven story unfold that revolves around fully formed people cognizant of their duality and dark impulses driven over the line and each more than willing to accept the consequences. Even the main bad guy is often emotionally conflicted and acts erratically as a result. There are no wasted moments, no overwrought, and therefore unbelievable, stereotypical melodrama to be seen. This is what I expect from female characters in movies and having Sook-hee display a multifaceted personality only lent the entire story a deeper level of authenticity usually missing in female-led action movies.
Director Jung Byung-gi used his own short film Standing on the Knife as a launching point for a feature film to explore the life of a woman who seemed fated to end up as a villainess and I have to say I think it was a great decision. Sook-hee’s history is steeped in blood, violent betrayal, and fueled by thoughts of revenge. She never stood a chance at having a normal life. And as her past and present collide, destroying her future, she’ll go all out to make people pay.
Jung Byung-gi weaves kinetic action with a heartfelt – an interesting – exploration of loyalty, love, family and revenge to create a no holds barred action movie you’ll be happy you saw. I wasn’t bored for a single second.
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5