STARRING: Kim Ok-bin, Kim Seo-hyung, Shin Ha-kyun, Jun Sung, Min Ye-Ji
DIRECTED BY: Jung Byung-gil
WRITTEN BY: Jung Byeong-sik, Jung Byung-gil
While the gritty modern action film seems to be dying a slow and embarrassing death at the hands of Hollywood producers constantly trying to remake Taken or fill their quota with over-exercised wrestlers, there is little doubt that the genre has found a new home in East Asia. With genre monsters like The Raid and On The Job easily sliding into classic status, it’s plain to see why there is little argument as to the legitimacy of action films coming from this part of the world.
The Villainess is a twist-filled thriller that tells the story of Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin, Thirst) who is a ruthless assassin that has been trained to kill ever since she was a little girl. Emboldened by the death of her father at the hands of an unknown killer with a sledgehammer, Sook-hee uses her rage to become one of the best walking weapons that has ever lived. Years later, promised her freedom after a decade of service to the agency she’s become a sleeper agent for, Sook-hee’s plans to escape are scuppered when her past begins to catch up with her. Hell-bent on revenge, she must fight for her freedom, and her life, before both are taken from her.
Starting with a pulse-racing first-person fight through a building heaving with bad guys, The Villainess is immediately reminiscent of last year’s action-heavy Hardcore Henry. We get to see thug after thug put down by Sook-hee’s near perfect gun-fu and it’s a thrilling ride that will leave you breathless. Once our heroine runs out of bullets, that’s when the real fun begins as our bloodthirsty bad ass begins to cut through everyone that dares step foot in the building. Setting the perfect tone, Confession of Murder director Jung Byung-gil gives you an hour or so to come down before it bookends with another brutal action scene. Whilst you’re still catching your breath, there’s plenty to keep your mind buzzing.
Sook-hee’s tale of revenge and redemption is one of a woman who has a deck stacked firmly against her that is told in flashbacks for a large portion of the story. Made what she is by her past, she’s forced to be good at what she does by the women in her program, including a vindictive and manipulative woman known as the Chief (Kim Seo-hyung, Late Spring) and the old men watching from the safety of a boardroom. A smattering of well directed action set pieces keeps the pace up. The makeup department keep the arterial blood pumping across the set, but it does give way to a very slow midsection.
A story this convoluted needs time to unfold and it is tough to get the balance of story-telling, exposition and action in a film like this. While it is easily compared to the sub-genre lovingly known by its fans as “Korean Revenge”, its action roots mean that when you get to the almost typical melodrama of ‘act two’, the ailing momentum can be a bit much for an everyday action fan. That isn’t to say it is bad: it’s a wonderful story that is beautifully told, but the tempo change is jarring. But if you can overlook this very minor of complaints then you are in for a thrilling couple of hours.
Imagine the gorgeous, visceral action of John Wick, with a healthy dose of Oldboy’s revenge story, with one of the most electric South Korean actresses carving her way though everyone she sees and you’ve got a great sense of what to look forward to with The Villainess. A must-see movie for fans of Korean cinema and newcomers alike.
The Villainess is now on release in the UK in select cinemas.