AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 129 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After killing loads of thugs as part of a revenge mission, Sook-hee is picked up by the police and then recruited and trained as one of many deadly female sleeper agents despite being pregnant with her dead husband’s baby. Promised freedom after ten years service, she’s allowed to bring up her child and is eventually released out into the world, taking on a new identity as stage actress Chae Yeon-soo, but every now and again she has to carry out deadly and dangerous assasinations for her employees….
Though Charlize Theron’s Lorrraine Broughton may still be 2017’s best ass-kicking heroine, The Villainess‘s Sook-hee certainly gives her a run for her money. At times coming across as a melding of La Femme Nikita [or perhaps even more its Hong Kong semi-remake Black Cat] and Kill Bill, but also a nice flashback for me who remembers those good old days of Asian cinema when you couldn’t move for beautiful but lethal females and the likes of Yukari Oshima, Michelle Yeoh and Moon Lee ruled what was called the ‘femme fatale’ genre and garnered a great many adoring fans in the West, Byung-gil Jung’s new film [only his second fictional effort] may not be as sensational as, say, Oldboy immediately was when it came out, but it should please most fans of current Korean cinema which seems to continually put out exciting work these days. However, despite having a ten minute opening set piece which may take even hardened action movie lover’s breaths away, it’s not a nonstop fight fest. If that’s what you’re in the mood for and are perhaps not very familiar with Korean action films which have a habit of virtually becoming something else for a while, then you may a little disappointed even though you’ll probably admit that the highlights were certainly worth waiting for. Rather, it’s a highly plot driven affair that chooses to tell its story in quite a complicated manner, with much jumping around in time and flashbacks within flashbacks which sometimes threaten to be a bit of a jumble if you’re not paying close attention. But I was in the mood for some concentration, this being my first review for HCF after a few weeks break, and I was never lost.
So the credits have barely finished before we’re hurled into an incredible melee of brutality and adopt the point of view of someone going down a hallway and then through several rooms shooting, stabbing, punching and kicking a ridiculous number of gangsters, many of whom appear to show some rather comic incomprehension as the attacker approaches them or as they lie bleading in her wake. It’s rather like Hardcore Henry, but here the camera, while still doing its share of ducking and diving, is far less shaky [put it this way, I didn’t feel like I wanted to throw up like I did after watching just a few minutes of Ilya Naishuller’s action flick], and there’s a rough grace about many of the lengthy takes. Eventually the intruder is smashed into a mirror and we see that the assailant is female and a slender young thing, something which explains why so many of the thugs look so surprised. Outside the cops are waiting for her, but after a spot of plastic surgery and a failed escape attempt she’s forced to become a government assassin in a brutal training programme. Gradually more and more flashbacks are brought in which tell a parallel story of Sook-hee’s past and why she was on this roaring rampage of revenge when we first met her. Sometimes these moments seem awkwardly cut in or jump forward a bit too quickly, while it does at times feel you’re watching the cinematic equivalent of a Russian nesting doll [which can be a good or bad thing depending on how things flow], but the strong moments do often have the impact that they should – there’s a quite terrifying ‘hiding under the bed’ moment – and one begins to really feel for the central character.
Back in the present, Sook-hee is only really able to bare her soul on stage, and has to spend much of her time carrying out various killing assignments while also trying to bring up a daughter. One thing I found rather refreshing is that she tends to make mistakes, though at one point she features in an obvious rehash of one of La Femme Nikita‘s best moments. Then there’s the friendly guy in the apartment next door to hers. We’re told almost immediately that Hyun-soo has been planted by the agency to keep tabs on her, something which I initially thought was a mistake but which ends up creating more tension because she also thinks that she’s hiding a great deal of stuff from him even though she’s actually only hiding a little bit. There’s a cute moment when the two first ‘get it on’ and he bumps her head on a table lamp and then can’t even undo a button. Rather than seeming like an unnecessary injection of silly humour, it just feels human and we soon start caring for this couple. While one climactic revelation sadly came as no surprise to me whatsoever, we really are quite far away from what would probably be a Hollywood take on the story considering the dark and sad turns that the tale takes and some distressing bits involving children, and the thing had me almost crying at one point. I read another review of this film several months ago which said that it has no heart and emotion. I totally disagree, unless emotion now automatically translates as schmaltz. Just because moments tend not to be dwelt upon doesn’t mean that the viewer isn’t intended and is unable to feel them.
While some may say that the wait for such moments is a little bit too long, a sword fight on bikes and a set-to in a bus are two action sequences that you won’t forget in a hurry. The bike scene in particular is a masterpiece of choreography and stunt work working hand in hand to create visceral cinema of the very best kind. And there are neat storytelling devices, like a moment shown from one perspective then shown from another which explains exactly what’s happened and why. Sadly there are a few moments of very obvious CGI [for god’s sake why can’t filmmakers get back to actually blowing things up, it didn’t used to be a problem and digital bangs hardly ever seem to look good], and the camera does tend to go all over the place, but there’s a real feeling of freedom when Byung-gil has it swung upside down, crash through windows, and fall down several flights of steps. Importantly, we’re still able to follow what’s going on and this ‘shaky cam’ loather only felt midly woozy a couple of times. And Jung-hun Park’s night-time photography, emphasising neon without going over the top, is very evocative, it reminded me of a Michael Mann film at times. Ja wan Koo’s score is also very good, there’s an actual love theme [a rare thing these days] as well as great use of a whilstled tune at several moments.
As expected there’s a hell of a lot of blood spilt though quite often we don’t see the full impact of something and two of the most vicious happenings are suggested in a simple but powerful way by blood spattering on to the face of a child. Despite the many other strong ingredients, a film like The Villainess still needs something very strong in order to hold it together, and luckily it has it in the form of Ok-bin Kim who gives one of the strongest performances I’ve seen in a Korean film in some time. From angel of vengeance to caring mother to romantic lover to grief-striken victim of fate, the part requires the actress to basically play several different roles in the same film and she plays them all admirably. At times she’s able to be ruthless and vulnerable at the same time which is difficult for any actress as well having a very subtle sexiness, though of course anyone who’s seen Thirst will already know how good she is. Jun Sung plays the angel-faced charmer Hyun-soo very well too and I also very much liked Seo-hyeong Kim as Chief Kwon, a seemingly cold and cruel character who gets one great little moment near the end when she shows some humanity and you begin to wonder about her past too, a past which has made her the way she is.
Despite the intricate way in which it tells its story sometimes threatening to get out of hand, I found The Villainess to be a rather satisfying melding of tragic melodrama and breakneck action. And its final shot of its incredible heroine packs quite a powerful punch. Sorry folks but no, she’s probably not going to be okay.
Arrow Video bring The Villainess to Blu-ray in a superbly sharp and detailed transfer. Aside from the trailer there’s also a commentary from two critics/filmmakers. Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin sustain a nice light tone throughout and clearly really like the film, but they only provide a bit of background information and spend rather too much time recommending other films that contain a similar scene to the one that’s occurring on screen, right down to mentioning Return Of The Jedi when someone’s holding a thermal detonator. On the other hand I can’t criticise a commentary too much that recommends Death Sentence, Deep Rising and – most impressively of all – Yesterday’s Enemy, and the guys are good company throughout.
The Villainess comes highly recommended on Blu-ray by the Doc.
BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
*Optional English subtitles
*Original 5.1 DTS HD-MA
*Audio commentary with filmmakers and critics Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Anton Bitel