Original title: Ak-Nyeo
D: Jung Byung-gil / 123m
Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Bang Sung-jun, Kim Seo-hyeong, Jo Eun-ji, Lee Seung-joo, Son Min-ji, Min Ye-ji, Kim Yeon-woo
Beginning with a bravura Hardcore Henry-style action sequence where a lone female takes on a warehouse full of goons before despatching their boss (who may have killed her father), The Villainess makes one thing very clear: this isn’t going to be the kind of generic, Hollywood-style action thriller we’re all used to. Instead, this is going to continue the trend where the Far East shows us just how to put together an exciting, pulse-pounding, and above all, gob-smacking slice of mayhem, with its shoot/stab/gouge first, don’t even bother with questions afterwards characters lashing out in all directions and sending blood flying all over the place (even on the camera lens). This is brutal, uncompromising, stunt-filled stuff that combines excellent fight choreography with sometimes astonishingly fluid camera work, and yet still finds the time to tell a compelling story of love and revenge, as well as layering the action with an emotional weight that is expertly expressed by its cast.
Our heroine is called Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), a young woman whose father is killed over his possession of a rare and valuable jewel. She witnesses his death as a young girl, but is saved from being killed herself by aspiring gangster Joong-sang (Shin). He raises her as his own and trains her in the art of assassination. When she becomes an adult, her feelings for Joong-sang lead her to marry him. But shortly afterwards, he’s killed, and apparently by the man we see Sook-hee kill at the beginning. Having avenged both her father’s death and her husband’s in one fell swoop, Sook-hee allows herself to be arrested, but instead of being put on trial she finds herself being recruited into a secret South Korean government agency. There, under the watchful eye of her commander, Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong), Sook-hee’s skills as an assassin are added to, and she is offered a chance at a normal life if she works for the government for ten years as a sleeper agent. She agrees, and is soon set up with a new life as an actress, and with an apartment for her and her daughter, Eun-hye (Kim Yeon-woo) (Sook-hee was pregnant with Joong-sang’s baby when she was arrested).
Sook-hee moves in on the same day as her neighbour, Hyun-soo (Bang), and they soon strike an easy friendship. But Hyun-soo also works for the agency, and is there to keep an eye on Sook-hee. Their relationship becomes gradually more and more romantic until he asks her to marry him, ostensibly as part of his cover but because he has fallen in love with her for real. She’s sent on a couple of missions, neither of which is entirely successful, but it’s the third assignment she’s given that makes all the difference. Tasked with carrying out this assignment on her wedding day, Sook-hee is shocked to discover that her target is someone from her past, someone who she believes is dead. With her loyalties potentially in question (the hit is botched), Sook-hee is watched even more closely by the agency, while also coming to the attention of her target. Soon, no one is safe as Sook-hee’s past comes back to haunt her, and no one in her present day life is safe from harm…
The Villianess tells the bulk of its story in non-linear fashion, skipping backwards and forwards between episodes of Sook-hee’s life as a child, her time with Joong-sang, and her time working for the government. Thanks to a taut script by director Jung Byung-gil and Jung Byeong-sik, there isn’t an ounce of narrative flab on the movie’s carefully constructed bones, and each development and revelation in the script is expertly crafted to provide the maximum effect as Sook-hee first tries to adjust to a “normal” life and at last finds a measure of true happiness, and then sees it all put at risk. As she fights to preserve life instead of wantonly despatching it, the movie invests Sook-hee’s character with a desperate craving for the peace she’s never truly known. And though when that peace is destroyed she reverts to the crazed killer instincts she has managed to keep under wraps, for once it’s entirely understandable that she does so. Revenge is an easy motive in too many action thrillers, but here there’s an emotional element to it all that makes Sook-hee’s murderous retaliation all the more credible.
As with so many of the best action movies coming out of South Korea these days, the movie isn’t just about the action, and there’s strong character development to offset some of the more predictable aspects of the script (it’s not an original story by any means but it is better assembled than most). As the tormented Sook-hee, Kim Ok-bin gives a terrific performance, tough as nails when in a scrap, and yet tender and vulnerable in her scenes with Bang and Kim Yeon-woo. Bang portrays Hyun-soo as a bashful romantic with a floppy fringe, and his role is a nice counterpoint to the testosterone-fuelled bellicosity of his other male colleagues, as well as some of Sook-hee’s fellow students. In the pivotal role of Joong-sang, Shin is equally as tough and tender as Sook-hee, and this ambivalence in the character makes him more intriguing than expected.
But when all’s said and discussed, and despite the need for a compelling narrative to fill in the gaps between the action sequences, The Villainess is still a movie that stands or falls on the quality of said action sequences. And it doesn’t disappoint at all. The opening sequence is a blast, slickly choreographed and edited (and with yet another bloody showdown in a corridor; what is it since Oldboy (2003) about corridor fights?), and as brutal as anything you’ve yet seen. Individual set pieces punctuate the rest of the movie, and maintain a similar intensity despite being briefer, but then Jung ups the ante and provides viewers with an incredible final showdown that includes Sook-hee and the principal villain fighting on the outside of a building, and a section involving a bus where bodies are flung all over the place, even through the rear window and onto the bonnet of a car. It’s impressively bonkers, and shows more visual invention and technical prowess in roughly twenty minutes than most Hollywood action thrillers manage in two hours (even John Wick isn’t this outrageous). If there is to be a Hollywood remake, rest assured it won’t be as good as it is here. But then, we all know that already, don’t we?
Rating: 9/10 – with a great deal of heart and soul amidst all the blood and broken bones, The Villainess is fierce, imposing stuff that has plenty of OMG moments as well as quieter, more character focused moments that help elevate the material throughout; bold in its visual design and enervating cinematography (take a bow, Park Jung-hun), this is everything you could ever want from a South Korean action thriller, and a lot more besides.