Writer: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byeong-sik
Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Sung Jun, Kim Seo-hyeong, Shin Ha-kyun
Running time: 123mins
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.