The Villainess

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Villainess
"A must-see film for action fans."

Bookended by two astonishing action sequences, Byung-gil Jung's hotly anticipated Villainess is without doubt one of the most thrilling films of the year. It opens in first-person-shooter mode, making the best use of knives, guns and narrow corridors since The Raid, snapping into the third person only when our heroine's head hits a mirror - you'll be disorientated for a moment, but so is she. Then it's straight back into the action, stabbing, kicking, twisting, leaping and flying through the air, frantic and visceral, though her exhaustion is palpable. Dozens of dead guys later and she's out on the street, in the rain, in a police spotlight. Among the observers overlooking the interrogation room, a woman says quietly, "She could be an asset."

She is Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim). But is she a heroine? Is she a villainess? Is she a half-wild innocent with an astonishing for murder, or was her arrival where she was bound to be spotted by the agency just a bit too convenient? Jung keeps his cards close to his chest, but Kim's emotionally raw performance means we don't need to understand Sook-hee's motives to care about her. It's Kim's skill as an actor, not just the stunning stunt work, that anchors the film. After all, we don't really know if the agency represents the good guys either; and we don't know the true motives of the fellow agent (played by Jun Sung) who seems to have a thing for her, assures his colleagues he doesn't, and arranges to be the one who watches her during her first mission. In this situation, emotions become more important than words, the human less significant than the animal.

Copy picture

Opening the Fantasia Film Festival, in Montreal, The Villainess can expect word of mouth to spread fast: this is a must-see film for action fans. That said, there are long sequences in the middle when there's barely any action at all, and this provides room for different types of drama to develop. A budding romance is tinged with paranoia. A friendship reveals unexpected depths, but is tinged with tragedy. Rivalry with a fellow agency trainee seems bound to lead to trouble. All along, Sook-hee is watched and discussed by her superiors, moving from one camera view to another. How alert is she to the invisible cage around her? Jung keeps us guessing. Her fighting skills are breathtaking, but what other skills might she be holding in reserve?

Many familiar tropes of the modern Korean thriller are here. Sook-hee is desperate to protect her small daughter. She's troubled by her past, and by conflicts between romantic longing and family honour. She's also a young woman struggling to carve out an independent identity; the men around her constantly speculate on her assumed need for a man. Is her experience of being observed simply a reflection of what happens to all attractive young women? Is her villainousness predicated in part on her resistance to this culture?

Jung's work here as an action director signals the arrival of a major new presence on the world stage. The film specialises in lengthy sequences of pursuit, Sook-hee alternating between pursuer and pursued, and although there's some sneaky cutting going on these are so seamlessly put together that they never allow the viewer time to step back and think. We are always right there in the thick of it, watching out for danger, calculating the next move. Injuries come unexpectedly; our heroine is not immune to damage. But it's psychologically that she is most vulnerable, and this becomes more stark in comparison to her physical prowess.

It's not perfect. The final scenes are drawn out just a little too long with that extra helping of sentiment that Korean audiences love but that doesn't work so well in the West. Nonetheless, this is a real treat: it more than delivers on its pre-screening promise, and will leave you wanting more.

Reviewed on: 13 Jul 2017
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The Villainess packshot
Sook-hee is a trained assassin who was born to kill. Now she works as a theatre actress and secret agent of the South Korean intelligence services.

Director: Jung Byung-gil

Writer: Jung Byung-gil

Starring: Ok-bin Kim, Jun Sung, Seo-hyung Kim, Seo-hyung Kim, Ha-kyun Shin

Year: 2017

Runtime: 123 minutes

Country: South Korea


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