Directed by: Jung Byoung-gil (정병길)
Starring: Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈), Shin Ha-kyun (신하균), Sung Joon (성준), Kim Seo-hyung (김서형), Jo Eun-ji (조은지)
The Film: Since Sookie (Kim Ok-bin) was a child, she was raised to become a highly trained killer. After getting forcefully recruited into a secret national organization of female assassins, she is given the chance to live a free life as long as she serves their organization well for 10 years.
Hyun-soo (Sung Joon) is in charge of watching over Sookie while she is in the field and can’t help falling for her. But when Joong-san (Shin Ha-kyun), a man from her past and the leader of another secret organization gets involved, Sookie’s chances at a normal life quickly diminish. When the mysteries surrounding each character’s identity come to a head, the only path forward becomes violence.
The Villainess made its world premiere in the Midnight Screenings section of this years Cannes Film Festival, a section typically reserved for some of the more hardcore genre films, and I couldn’t think of a better place to showcase this new hyper-stylized revenge-action film from director Jung Byoung-gil. Simply being selected, even if only to screen “out of competition” at Cannes, speaks volumes to the potential merits of a movie, and the announcement coincided with the release of one of the more stylish and irresistibly cool movie posters in a long time that generated a lot of hype too. I am very happy to report that The Villainess has met or even surpassed its high expectations to become one of the most ambitiously thrilling and uniquely realized action films in recent memory.
You can’t help but notice that The Villainess borrows extensively from some of the most successful revenge films of the times including Oldboy (2003), A Bittersweet Life (2005), The Man From Nowhere (2010), and even John Wick (2014). However, The Villainess is well aware of its inspirations and hopes to convince you that it is on a similar level with these hallmarks of the genre with one of the craziest, action-filled openings for a movie I have ever seen.
What makes this film stand out and reinforces that it not be simply thrown aside as imitation material is its incredibly innovative and inspired camera work throughout its many fabulously choreographed fight scenes, car chases, and shootouts. I strongly feel that these filmmakers were having a blast while making this film, and that the juices that fuel creative filmmaking were flowing strongly throughout this production. I found myself recalling the days of seeing the Japanese film Versus (2000) for the first time, and how that exercise in stylistic action and camera work was a breath of fresh air. Also, The Villainess uses a first person POV camera like in Hardcore Henry (2016) during several of the action scenes, and the seamless edits and transitions had me wanting to break for applause on several occasions.
There is one aspect of The Villainess that might perturb those looking for a start-to-finish actioner though, and that is the film’s surprising change in pace and style during its second act. The film goes from a surrealistic fictional world of its own, filled with secret societies of assassins and flashbacks of Sookie’s gruesome past, to a modern day neighborhood in Seoul where Sookie is being courted by her neighbor (Sung Joon) who has been secretly assigned to monitor her. This part of the film is a major shift in tone and style, and looks like it could almost have come straight from a very well done Korean melodrama series.
For me, I thought this shift in tone was absolutely fascinating as I’ve never seen anything like it. The way the action and revenge story re-emerges from the looks and feel of a melodrama, and then to finally make a full circle in tone that more than tops its violent and action filled beginnings is simply one of the most interesting journeys a film like this can take you on.
Kim Ok-bin (Thirst, 2009; The Front Line, 2007) delivers one of the strongest female lead performances in a badass action role I have ever seen. Her character is somewhat of a hybrid between the leads of Haywire (2011) and Colombiana (2011), but Kim brings so much more visceral emotion to Sookie that she stands well above the others. Not to mention both Shin Ha-kyun (Save the Green Planet, 2003; Welcome to Dongmakgol, 2005) and Sung Joon really nail their characters as well, making nearly every moment of screen time enjoyable.
Overall, even though The Villainess borrows extensively from other films, it manages to solidify its own identity through its ambitious action sequences and interesting stylistic choices in both tone and narrative. There is a ton of talent both in front and behind the camera here, and the dedication put in to this film from all those involved couldn’t be more evident. If you have found any of the films mentioned in this review to have been enjoyable in the past, you absolutely can not go wrong with The Villainess. Strap in for another jaw-dropping action filled revenge noir film from the land who does them best, South Korea.
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