The opening scene of Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess puts the film in a corner. It’s a wild, visceral action scene that takes place through the perspective of a young woman as she lashes in violent vengeance. The reasons why she’s amassing this massive body count and splattering the hallways with the blood of her victims isn’t entirely clear. But this action sequence is everything that Hardcore Henry wishes it could achieve. Everything that follows this opening is somewhat underwhelming in comparison, though The Villainess certain has some audacity when the action kicks up into high gear. When The Villainess concerns itself with its plot and its multiple duplicitous characters, it becomes a somewhat garbled mess that is just passing the time before the next explosion of blood-spurting violence.
Kim Ok-vin stars as Sook-hee, a young woman who was raised by a criminal gang and trained to be a merciless assassin. After watching the murder of her father, Sook-hee was taken in by Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), who will eventually marry his murderous protégé. It is the murder of Joong-sang that drives Sook-hee on the film’s opening rampage and in the aftermath she’s picked up by Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung), who wants to use the young deadly woman in her secret team of assassins. Sook-hee is pregnant and gives birth to a daughter while in training for her new life as a state sanctioned assassin, and eventually reaches a deal to carry out one last hit before being allowed to leave for a domestic life. Eventually, she finds herself falling for her neighbor Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun), except he’s not the well-intentioned neighbor he appears as he’s an agent for Chief Kwon. Soon the past and present of Sook-hee will collide and nobody wants to be standing in her way when she’s out for bloody vengeance.
The plotting and the way in which Jung Byung-gil takes the story back and forth through time can sometimes be rather confusing. It’s an attempt to build tension by withholding key story elements that often backfires, and The Villainess would be much better aided by a more straightforward use of storytelling.
It’s the action that stands out in The Villainess and you’re willing to forgive some sketchy plotting in order to get to the more outlandish aspects of the film. Aside from the opening sequence, there’s an astounding motorcycle chase that plays out with the characters slashing at each other with swords. Byung-gil’s camera glides between the motorcycles and the weapons in a shocking, daring use of camera work. The climactic finale in a bus does much of the same, but at this point the showy style of the camera work and its hyperactive movement between characters devolves into visual incoherency, an example of style run amok and robbing a climactic battle of its visceral intensity. The brazenness of the film’s technical style in its action scenes are incredibly impressive even if they don’t always work as well as intended.
The Villainess is a high-energy revenge tale and a female led work of action filmmaking that is in the same vein as this year’s Atomic Blonde. Like Blonde, The Villainess works best when it’s not concerned with its plot and story and focusing on presenting intricately choreographed visceral action that builds to bloody crescendos. Jung Byung-gil displays an audacious filmmaking style though his work as a writer often undermine his cinematic style, though I’d eagerly seek out whatever piece of violent mayhem that will follow The Villainess.
Jung Byung-gil’s The Villains features moments of astounding action filmmaking that sometimes allow style to hinder its coherence, something that also happens with the film’s dense plotting.