The blis­ter­ing South Korean ac­tion movie that will slice your face off and then shoot you in the bit that got sliced off. Which is a rec­om­men­da­tion.


OUT 15 SEPTEM­BER CERT 18 / 124 MINS DI­REC­TOR Jung Byung-gil CAST Kim Ok-bin, Kim Seo-hyeong, Sung Jun, Shin Ha-kyun

PLOT Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) slaugh­ters her way through a drug den and emerges blood­ied, to be given fa­cial re­con­struc­tive surgery and trained as an as­sas­sin by shad­owy yet pow­er­ful forces. Slowly, her vi­o­lent past and vi­o­lent fu­ture un­fold as she grap­ples with her role.

IT’S AL­WAYS A treat to see the film that a hun­dred Hol­ly­wood ac­tion di­rec­tors are about to rip off (okay, lawyers, pay homage to) be­fore they reach it. The Vil­lain­ess opens with one of those se­quences that will leave you won­der­ing how they did it, and mar­vel­ling at the sheer ki­netic im­pact. It fin­ishes with another equally laws-of-physics-de­fy­ing flour­ish of a fight scene. And in-be­tween it of­fers a largely sat­is­fy­ing and of­ten chewily dense take on the usual be­trayal/ re­venge/con­tract killer tropes with­out ever wink­ing at the au­di­ence. Di­rec­tor Jung Byung-gil, who also co-wrote, es­tab­lished him­self as one to watch with Con­fes­sion Of Mur­der; con­sider him now a bona fide break­out suc­cess.

The story be­gins like it’s a first-per­son shooter, in the most ef­fec­tive use of that style to date. Some­one is bat­tling their way up through a build­ing filled with be­suited hench­men and sin­is­ter lab per­son­nel who pull weapons from un­der their lab coats, only to prove un­equal to their op­po­nent. This riv­et­ing se­quence man­ages a fresh take on the cor­ri­dor fight, match­ing

Old­boy and Dare­devil thanks to some (pre­sum­ably Cg-stitched) cam­era work of daz­zling im­pos­si­bil­ity, the forces of grav­ity stand­ing back to ad­mire the artistry with the rest of us.

When we fi­nally see our pro­tag­o­nist, it proves to be a young woman, Sook-hee (Thirst’s Kim Ok-bin). In­stead of be­ing picked up by the po­lice, she’s taken in by shad­owy fig­ures, given plas­tic surgery and sent to a strange all-girls’ school where she re­ceives fur­ther train­ing in the deadly arts. Such an ed­u­ca­tion seems su­per­flu­ous af­ter ev­ery­thing we’ve just wit­nessed, but her skills are honed any­way and a cover life as an ac­tor es­tab­lished. Adding to her chal­lenges is the fact that this killer is a mother, hav­ing ar­rived at as­sas­sin school preg­nant. That re­la­tion­ship with her tiny daugh­ter adds a new and un­usual colour to the mix, giv­ing those close to her a plau­si­ble way to truly threaten her but also adding ten­der­ness where other films have only ass-kick­ing.

In ad­di­tion to that bond there’s a rather sur­pris­ing de­tour into rom­com ter­ri­tory in the film’s mid­dle sec­tion, be­cause Sook-hee’s like­able han­dler, Hyun-soo (Sung), has fallen for her. He must jug­gle his per­sonal and pro­fes­sional roles, keep­ing the lat­ter a se­cret from his charge and the for­mer a se­cret from his boss. Their awk­ward re­la­tion­ship is punc­tu­ated by cute, ten­ta­tive steps, in­clud­ing a To­toro-echo­ing dis­play of de­vo­tion and a sur­pris­ing de­ci­sion af­ter only a hand­ful of dates.

As the story un­folds we see flash­backs ex­plain­ing more about Sook-hee’s tragic back­ground and the early years that made her so lethal, though in such a non-lin­ear or­der that it’s some­times less than im­me­di­ately en­light­en­ing. There’s a much-loved fa­ther, a dis­as­trous re­la­tion­ship and a be­trayal, seen over and over again as she cy­cles through the same trau­mas. But it grad­u­ally be­comes clear that the back­story has echoes of Leon or Nikita’s sym­pa­thetic fig­ures, com­bin­ing the two with Kim’s steady-eyed per­for­mance to give its hero­ine soul and hu­man­ity as she slaugh­ters her way through all op­po­nents.

Re­ally the slaugh­ter is the point, rather than the of­ten labyrinthine plot­ting. This is a film that prefers baroque flour­ishes to propul­sive sim­plic­ity; it’s closer in that re­spect to Old­boy than, say, Train To Bu­san. It slowly be­comes ap­par­ent that the as­sas­sin school boss (Kim Seo-hyeong) is a lit­tle too well con­nected to be a sim­ple gang­ster and must be a govern­ment fig­ure, but there’s never any real clar­ity as to who’s fight­ing whom and why. Let’s just as­sume that mur­der begets mur­der, leave open the ques­tion of whether the film’s ti­tle is en­tirely fair and get back to the ac­tion.

And it’s the ac­tion that will leave peo­ple talk­ing. En­joy a bride turn­ing sniper on her wedding day or two geisha am­bush­ing their clients, and try to breathe nor­mally dur­ing a spec­tac­u­lar mo­tor­bike chase. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Park Jung-hun and fight chore­og­ra­pher Kwon Gui-duck should be flooded with of­fers af­ter this dis­play — but the en­tire film­mak­ing team is on form. Aside from the overly com­pli­cated sto­ry­telling, there’s barely a bum note here, and not a jaw left un­dropped.

VERDICT Fre­netic, ki­netic ac­tion meets sat­is­fy­ingly soapy drama. See it be­fore every­one tries to copy the best bits.

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