The Villainess

Director: Jung Byung-gil

Writer: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byeong-sik

Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Sung Jun, Kim Seo-hyeong, Shin Ha-kyun

Cert: 18

Running time: 123mins

Year: 2017

What’s the story: After murdering the men who killed her husband, criminal enforcer Sook-hee is recruited by a shadowy agency to become an assassin. But, the past never forgets.

What’s the verdict: Forget Atomic Blonde. The Villainess is 2017’s queen of extreme. And strong contender for the year’s best action flick (yep, it out-firepowers John Wick: Chapter 2).

Jung Byung-gil’s sophomore feature, after 2012’s Confession of Murder, also reminds us how well-orchestrated mayhem can elevate the most standard plot.

The Villainess is thrilling, exciting, even moving, but it’s not original. Lifting liberally from Hardcore Henry, John Wick, Nikita, Kill Bill and The Matrix, it should be an anonymous cash-in. But, Jung’s direction is John Woo on amphetamines and lead Kim Ok-bin lends required weight for this to be more than another butt-kicking babe bonanza.

Jung announces intentions in the first ten minutes. A POV action sequence with Kim’s Sook-hee battling through henchmen to the big boss who murdered her husband (Shin), it’s a giddy opener. She’s then off to a top-secret facility to be trained in the assassin arts, some serious plastic surgery altering her appearance.

Pregnant during this time, once training is complete she and her daughter are sent into the real world. Sook-hee is to be a sleeper agent, living a regular life until activated. While having to deflect the friendly advances of neighbour Hyun-soo (Jung) and the disapproval of stern boss, Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong).

But, while Sook-hee’s quest for revenge seems to have ended, the past is not done with her.

Jung attempts to add a layer of complexity with a Tarantino-esque flashback structure and daddy issues. It’s not complex, although the crosses and double crosses do risk tumbling into incoherence. But, at its core this a “woman battling oppressive patriarchy” actioner that is no deeper than The Long Kiss Goodnight or Kill Bill (Kim is even in a bridal gown for one hit).

So, we’re back to the action. Jung places Sook-hee in multi-level buildings, on a motorbike with sword brandishing pursuers, and in a speeding bus for set-pieces bursting with imagination and vitality. All with that South Korean element of credible pain.

A botched mission in a hostess bar proves Jung can mix TNT with tension. A series of late-in-the-day deaths makes it unclear if anyone will reach the end intact.

The title is a misnomer, Sook-hee acts heroically throughout. Here’s to the character appearing in John Wick: Chapter 3.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

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4 thoughts on “The Villainess”

  1. Thanks for the comment, Leon. Always good to get debate on here, even if the opinions are negative. I thought the opening abided by the old formula of Bruce Lee films regarding the “why doesn’t everyone just pile in?” query.

    The knives over guns query – well, you could explain it away with the logic from the movie Leon – the better the killer, the more simple the weapon they use. It doesn’t totally hold water, but part of the fun of these action films is enjoying the choreography and staging.

    But, if that doesn’t work for you, as this didn’t seem to, then you are unlikely to get much from the movie. I personally didn’t think the opener was terribly designed, but actually impressive. Atomic Blonde seemed determined to dampen its action to try and achieve some Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy middle-ground and for me, disappointed as both an espionage thriller and action film.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read and feedback though.

  2. The opening action scene is terribly designed and so is the blocking.

    First, how come that the chemists who make the drugs possess firearms while all the hitmen use knives and close-combat weapons? Shouldn’t the grunts be also able to use guns since they are defending a crime syndicate of decent scale to have a small production line of drugs and that the chemists, who shouldn’t be the ones needing to defend themselves from attack, at least possess a few guns?

    Second, during the knife fight, there are several instances where the protagonist is surrounded by henchmen or the protagonist is temporally occupied, but why don’t they just attack? Why do they simply stand-by, watch, and take turns to fight? It doesn’t make any sense.

    At least the action sequences in Atomic Blonde are relatively better. People ignoring the issue in this movie give me a headache for how stupid they sound.

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