Director: Byung-gil Jung
Screenplay: Byeong-sik Jung, Byung-gil Jung
Starring: Ok-bin Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, Jun Sung, Seo-hyeong Kim, Eun-ji Jo, Ye-Ji Min
Country: South Korea
Running Time: 119min
BBFC Certificate: 18
There have been a couple of decent Hollywood action movies in recent years (the John Wick films in particular), but Asia has long been the go-to location for the best examples of the genre. Gaining a lot of attention among fans of Asian action movies this year is South Korea’s The Villainess. The film is directed by a relative newcomer, Byung-gil Jung, who’s only directed one other fiction film, Confession of Murder, and a documentary about stunt-men called Action Boys. It’s always nice to see new names entering the scene to keep the genre moving forward and, judging by this, Byung-gil’s is a name we should keep an eye out for in the future.
The Villainess sees a woman called Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim) get caught by the police following a massacre at an illegal drug warehouse. Rather than put her in prison though, she’s put into a secret facility with a group of likeminded young criminal women. They are trained in the art of killing, as well as practical and occupational skills so that they can later be integrated into society as sleeper cell assassins for top secret missions. Sook-hee resents this and tries to get out, but when she discovers she’s pregnant and has the baby whilst living in the facility, she reluctantly stays put and follows the course of her training.
When she’s ready to get out, she’s given an apartment and job as an actor, as well as, unknowingly, a partner who is there to keep an eye on her. This partner is Hyun-soo (Jun Sung), a young man working for the agency who had his heart set on this job ever since he saw Sook-hee taken in. He manages to sweet-talk his way into Sook-hee’s life, but as he gets closer, so does her past, and both their lives are put in jeopardy, as well as their mission.
The film opens with one of the most thrilling and bravura action sequences I’ve seen in a long while. Largely shot in first person perspective and made to seem like one long take, with some stunning choreography and plenty of bone crunching, blood-splattering violence, it’s one hell of a way to open a film. It certainly got my attention and follows this up with some more tremendously exciting and dazzlingly shot action sequences as it moves forward, a particular stand-out featuring a sword-fight on motorbikes!
There’s a huge amount of camera movement to enhance the energetic choreography, but never at the expense of following what’s happening on screen. And Byung-gil has his camera crash out of windows and fall down several storeys. It’s swung upside down on several occasions too. It’s a visual marvel in this respect and is beautifully lit in moody neon for the most part.
The film does slow down a gear for a good portion of the mid-section though to establish the complicated relationship between Hyun-soo and Sook-hee, as well as slowly fill us in on Sook-hee’s past. It turns out the opening mass-killing was inspired by vengeance for two loved ones lost and this information is spoon-fed to us through some disturbing flashbacks. A ‘lull’ like this is often classed as a flaw in an action film, but the drama is handled well here and there are enough splashes of violence to keep genre fans sated. Yes, like many Asian films, it gets quite over the top, meaning the drama can become melodramatic as much as the action gets bonkers (and believe me it does), but it only helps give Sook-hee’s fight more weight, particularly in the finale after some dark turns in the plot.
So perhaps it suffers from some problems inherent in a lot of Korean genre films, where it’s a little too long, adding many layers to its drama and slowing the pace down when there’s no action on screen. However, this helps add a layer of class to proceedings and when the action is this breathlessly exciting you need a bit of a break to recover. The set-pieces have an energy that has rarely been paralleled. It’s not quite as perfectly executed as the Raid films perhaps, but it’s stylish, thrilling and has enough dramatic weight to prevent it from becoming mindless trash. It’s a must see for action fans and further proof that Asia is where action cinema thrives.
The Villainess is out on 30th October on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Video. I saw the DVD version and it looks decent. The colours come through nicely in particular.
The only special feature of note is an audio commentary from filmmakers and critics Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin. This is quite enjoyable, but without being involved in making the film, they spend most of the time simply talking about how good it is and recommending other (sometimes only vaguely) related films. It’s worth a listen though and is anything but dry.
The first pressing of the Blu-Ray also includes an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Anton Bitel.