The Villainess (Movie Review)

The Villainess (Movie Review)
7 10

Fantasia Film Festival 2017


PLOT: A young killer for a crime family is snatched up by a mysterious organization intent on training her to be the ultimate assassin. Through flashbacks we learn how she arrived at this point, and who - if anyone - she can trust.

REVIEW: There are at least three terrific action sequences in THE VILLAINESS that make it worth the price of admission. The film is not always the most cohesive experience, with writer-director Jung Byung-gil sometimes getting a little too clever for his own good with a jumbled screenplay when simplicity might have been better served. But when it's on fire, it rockets forward like a bat out of hell, placing us squarely in the center of a whirlwind of dizzying violence in a most impressive way. The body count is high, the blood spills by the gallon and nearly no one is left un-maimed by the time this slick thriller is over.

There's a lot of plot to the plot, too much to get into here (also worth noting that there are several twists along the way that should go unspoiled), but the film begins in furious style: an assassin enters a building filled to the brim with armed men and takes them down with bullets, knives, whatever is handy. The gimmick here is that it's all shot from the assassin's POV (think HARDCORE HENRY or any FPS game), we see every bloody thing from the assassin's perspective for approximately 10 cranium-crushing minutes. It's a bit much to handle, frankly, as Jung shoots it all in such kinetic fashion that it's hard to ever really get your bearings, but thankfully he finds a neat way to break us out of it and watch the action unfold in a more traditional - but no less vivacious - way. And when it's all said and done, we see that the assassin who has just made mincemeat out of a warehouse filled with about 100 badass henchmen is a sprightly young woman, conceivably no older than 20.

The Villainess Kim Ok-bin Jung Byung-gil movie review Fantasia

Who is this deadly gal? She is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), and in a series of convoluted flashbacks we get to know her story, as well as see the strange saga that follows her massacre at the warehouse. Not unlike Nikita in Luc Besson's LA FEMME NIKITA, Sook-hee's talent for shedding blood is appreciated by a secret organization that trains young women to become highly-trained killers. Not only that, they are given completely new identities in a myriad of ways: plastic surgery to change their appearances, lessons in being good housekeepers to better assimilate into society, and even acting/dancing/cooking courses so they'll have a viable skill when they are ready to go out into the world. (Turns out Sook-hee is a pretty good actress.) Once they've aced all of this, they'll be ready for their first assignment and unleashed upon society as sleeper agents, living ostensibly normal lives while ready at any moment to go kill on command.

There's a lot more going on, and Jung is nothing if not willing to overstuff this movie with as many plot strands as possible: Unbeknownst to Sook-hee, she is assigned a handsome handler (Sung Joon) from the start who she will eventually be manipulated into falling in love with. There's also the matter of Sook-hee's dead husband (Shin Ha-kyun) - the man who raised her to be such an effective killing machine in the first place - who may not being dead after all. There's also the fact that she's got a little girl to shield from all of this. There's also the ongoing mystery of who killed her father. There's also the tension between her and the organization's stone-faced representative (Kim Seo-hyung). There's also...

Give credit to Jung for not allowing his film to be a simple slice-and-dice action extravaganza; with the amount of melodrama and melancholy injected into Sook-hee's story, it's clear he's attempting to plant THE VILLAINESS in the same field as other great Korean crime-tragedies as OLDBOY, SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE and I SAW THE DEVIL, just to name a few. Sometimes it gets there: Kim Ok-bin is great as the tragic anti-hero, just as impressive in her dramatic moments as she is when she's busting heads. There are a few intense sequences of anguish for the character that land like gut-punches, and the movie's most effective scene is one that unspeakably devastating. But the reliance on too many flashbacks of Sook-hee's past becomes a bit of a burden; without warning we'll be thrust into another part of the character's life and we're often left a little unsure of when/where we are, what stage of her life she's in. A little of this would have gone a long way, but Jung keeps knocking us back and forth in time; the effect ultimately becomes wearying as opposed to innovative.

The Villainess Kim Ok-bin Jung Byung-gil movie review Fantasia

But THE VILLAINESS really gives us the goods during its exciting, ultra-violent action set-pieces, with a camera that never stops zooming and whizzing around the mayhem. It's disorienting once in a while (it looks like some CG was utilized to enhance some of the hard-to-believe camera moves), but there's no question it's eye-popping stuff. One can immediately imagine Jung fielding about a hundred calls from Hollywood agents eager to get him a mid-level action flick or, perhaps even more likely, an English-language review of THE VILLAINESS. (Can absolutely picture that happening.) There's very little humor to be found here, but you've just got to smile when Jung and his protagonist are unleashing torrents of unthinkable carnage upon anyone foolish to go up against Sook-hee, as evidenced in the rousing finale, which involves a car, a bus, an axe and total chaos.

Because of its shaky storytelling, THE VILLAINESS isn't quite a home run. But there's no doubt its leading lady and the several memorable moments of anarchy make it a must-see for fans of this kind of thing. It may not be perfect, but it leaves a serious impression, king of like Sook-hee herself.

Extra Tidbit: THE VILLAINESS just made its North American premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival. It will be released in North America on August 25th.



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