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The action is the party in the hot/cold, on/off actioner The Villainess, which might be described as a high-adrenaline tale of fighting, shooting, stabbing and killing interrupted by quiet stretches of backstory and character development. In this schizophrenic thriller, Luc Besson’s 1990 noir classic La femme Nikita gets yet another makeover via the story of a beautiful girl trained to kill. Humanizing the violent goodies and baddies no doubt helped the film land a coveted slot in Cannes’ Midnight Screenings, but it’s a choice that also takes serious time away from the action sequences, which will be the real selling point for genre audiences.
In any case, it’s another step up the ladder for Korean director, writer and producer Jung Byung-gil, who made his directing bow with the documentary Action Boys, describing the life of film stuntmen, and went on to win awards for his first thriller Confession of Murder, based on a real-life serial killer. Audiences should give his Villainess a warm embrace in international genre markets.
Since her father was killed in front of her eyes when she was a child, Sook-hee has been raised by gangsters to be a skilled fighter and a ruthless killer. She marries her boss and mentor but, when he is murdered on their honeymoon, she turns into a fury hell-bent on revenge. In the breathtaking opening sequence, entirely shot from her POV, she storms into the rival gang’s HDQ and, corridor after corridor, shoots ‘em dead. The effect is very much like an early arcade game and, by the time 50 or 60 men in identical dark suits lay bleeding on the floor, about as exciting. When she opens the door at the end of the hall, however, a gym full of leering bruisers are there to protect their boss, and things get a little hotter. For the first time we see the shooter’s face: she’s just an ordinary girl, but she’s hopping mad. And she’s finally out of ammo. When the blood is finally wiped off her face, she emerges with three tiny scratches and in police custody.
Though Sook-hee has won the first round with a vengeance, she is now a prisoner. She is taken to a secret government training ground where Chief Kwon (the super chic, icy pro Kim Seo-hyung) decides to put her to good use by cutting a deal: if she works for the Korean Intelligence Agency for 10 years, they’ll let her go free to live her life. The fact that she’s pregnant probably influences her decision to play along and live as long as she can.
Thanks to plastic surgery, Sook-hee is soon transformed into a lovely Kim Ok-bin (the female lead in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst.) Kim brings a wide range of emotions to a woman who is called on to be simultaneously a raging fighter, a cold-blooded killer, a tender mother and a hot date. For the moment, she goes through “training,” which involves fighting other cadets with blades and guns more than martial arts, but also learning a craft that can be used as a cover when she goes underground as a sleeper cell. Her only aptitude turns out to be acting, so she is given a new identity as a theater actress and a modest apartment to live in with her infant daughter.
Hyun-soo, the nice boy next door (played with appealing brashness by Sung-Jun) clumsily courts her, without letting on that he’s an undercover operative for the Agency sent to shadow her. Meanwhile, her ex-husband Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun of Thirst and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) returns to haunt her memories.
The flurry of characters takes a long time to get straight, and identification is made even harder by the nervous handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing that makes no concessions. But no matter: the film comes into its element in the imaginative action scenes, which include a coy assignment for Sook-hee and a friend as geishas entertaining three cutthroats, ending with blood on the floor. Signature sequences are an unforgettable motorcycle chase at night down the highway, and an eye-popping finale in which Sook-hee leaps onto the back of a speeding bus and hacks her way in for a final showdown with her chief nemesis.
Among the fine tech work, Koo Ja-wan’s abstract, pulsating score gets under the skin.
Production company: Apeitda
Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun. Bang Sung-jun
Director: Jung Byung-gil
Screenwriters: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byung-sik
Producers: Jung Byung-gil
Executive producers: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Park Jung-hun
Production designer: Kim Hee-jin
Costume designer: Chae Kyung-hwa
Editor: Heo Sun-mi
Music: Koo Ja-wan
World sales: Contents Panda
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight screening)
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