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.