I’ve been trying to broadcast to as many people as possible just how good South Korean cinema has been in the 2000’s, and any time I’m able to find something new is a bit of an event for me. And while I love coming across a new feature from a director I’m familiar with (you should know by now how director-centric I am when it comes to film), I’m always fascinated by discovering filmmakers I’m entirely unaware of before, regardless of nationality. When I saw a film that I heard small murmurs about sitting on a shelf in my town, I couldn’t hesitate on that purchase. Small things like this don’t make it to my area (I still haven’t found a Blu-ray for The Handmaiden anywhere), so I couldn’t throw away my shot.
The Villainess is the third feature film from director Jung Byung-gil, and it premiered at Cannes earlier this year to a four minute standing ovation. The film follows a female assassin named Sook-hee who has been trained from a very young age. She enters a building filled with hostiles, and she takes them all out one at a time. We follow her through a POV shot (like Hardcore Henry except I didn’t want to throw up) as she dispatches rooms and hallways filled with enemies in a John Wick style. While taking some fairly significant damage, she manages to clear the building and escape, but is arrested by police in an alley.
Sook-hee wakes up and appears to be in a prison. She tries to escape with the help of another woman, but the other woman betrays her in order to bring her back. Sook-hee and all of the women here are sleeper agents for a South Korean intelligence agency and made to serve for 10 years before being offered freedom. She also learns that she is pregnant, which influences her decision to contentedly remain.
To get further into the plot would be a disservice to you, especially if you’re interested so far. I’m sure you have some ideas where The Villainess might go, but I also assume you’re aware that the plot isn’t always the most important thing to action movies. I’ll just say that there are enough twists and surprises to keep you guessing without confusing you too much.
Kim Ok-bin delivers a wonderful performance in the lead role. It isn’t always easy to play more than one character in a film, but she has a few layers of nuance in basically every scene. The variety of “normal” people she plays when she’s on missions feel distinct from each other, while her normal agent self remains separate as well. Beyond just the acting chops, she handles the stunt work exceptionally well. I’m sure that someone else did some amount of the stunts (because that’s just how things often go), so credit should also go to the entire stunt team, who received special recognition at the Blue Dragon Film Awards in South Korea. The Villainess also received nominations for Best Actress for Ok-bin along with Best Cinematography & Lighting for Park Jung-hun.
I made a reference to John Wick earlier, but The Villainess really feels more like the sibling to this year’s Atomic Blonde, and not just because of the presence of an action heroine. Both films are being hailed for their use of color and neon infused with the production design, the intense hand-to-hand fight choreography, and the longer camera shots to make the action palatable.
If you can find a way to acquire The Villainess (legally, mind you), I wholly recommend it for a great looking action romp. The next time you’re left without something to watch, maybe look towards the cinema of South Korea.
The Villainess: 8/10