South Korea is renowned for releasing some of the most brutal gorefests imaginable upon the world, and “The Villainess” (“Ak-Nyeo” in Korean) is relentlessly eager to join the ranks of its national brethren. Although held back by a slow and unevenly-paced second act, the rest of the film is comprised almost entirely of a smorgasbord of absolutely spectacular and utterly out-of-control action sequences that no adrenaline-craving pair of eyes, ears and well, adrenal glands should ever be deprived of absorbing in all their glory!
The titular anti-heroine of the film, Sook-hee, is portrayed by Kim Ok-bin, who finds herself on the leash of South Korean undercover operative Kwon-sook, played by Kim Seo-hyung. She also finds a romantic interest in Jung Hyun-soo, played by Sung Joon, while Shin Ha-kyun provides a foil in the form of the shadowy Lee Joong-sang. Park Chul-min cameos in the role of Kim’s father and the object of her vendetta, while Kim Yeon-woo rounds out the cast in the pivotal role of her young daughter, Eun-hye.
After witnessing the vicious murder of her father as a child, Sook-hee is determined to wreak bloody vengeance on the assassins who ruined her life. As a young adult, her skills at mopping the floor with armies of opponents single-handedly attracts the attention of government operative Kwon-sook, who recruits Sook-hee to mold into an assassin alongside an undercover team of contract killers.
After finishing her ten-year tenure as a hitwoman, Sook-hee decides to return to civilian life with her young daughter Eun-hye under a fabricated identity. However, as she tries to raise her child in peace and begins a romance with her new neighbour Jung Hyun-soo, she soon finds her past and the man responsible for her father’s murder arriving just in time to disrupt the new life she’s trying to build for herself and her daughter.
You can almost literally see “The Villainess” folding its arms and giving a grin of smug self-satisfaction right before your eyes by the time it hits the ten-minute mark, and it absolutely earns the right to do so with its first-person camerawork, off the display of beautiful, sublime savagery unleashed in its introductory action sequence. As if it were the offspring of “Oldboy” and “Hardcore Henry”, the opening action sequence of Sook-hee mauling her way through a literal army of knife-wielding opponents like a rabies-stricken Terminator, begins in first-person perspective before shifting outward in such a way that the audience still feels as if they’re smack in the middle of the battle at hand.
The camera work of each set piece is genuinely unique unto itself – the viewer isn’t merely a fly on the wall, but a fly buzzing right into the centre of the action and catching it from every conceivable angle, and “The Villainess” is just getting warmed up in its opening set piece. Sook-hee later finds herself fleeing a cadre of sword-wielding henchman by motorcycle, and is forced to battle off her pursuers while careening ahead at 60 miles per hour. It’s perhaps the first time since the car chase in Gareth Evans’ “The Raid 2” where a director of photography genuinely deserves a stuntman’s credit alongside the very stunt people he’s tasked with filming!
The film devotes the bulk of its middle section to Sook-hee’s efforts towards raising her young daughter and living a normal life, and for as deliriously fast-paced as “The Villainess” is in its first forty minutes, it slams the brakes on leisurely shifting into cruise control for the next forty.
While its necessary to the story to see Sook-hee attempt to establish some semblance of a normal life for herself and work up a romance with Hyun-soo, this section of the film goes on twice as long as it needs to. Frankly, Hyun-soo is far too bland a prospective boyfriend for viewers to really get invested in Sook-hee’s fledgling romance with him. It’s as if we’ve suddenly jumped into “The Fault in Our Stars” after an hour in a “Fast and Furious” sequel, yet in an unexpected way, this proves to be as much an advantage to the film as it is a hindrance.
With an opening third that’s almost wall-to-wall action, the viewer ends up getting a double dose of the adrenaline injection after the second act finishes pussyfooting around and treats us to Sook-hee’s final battle with the newly resurfaced killers from her childhood. Employing the same “fly-in-the-air” camera work seen in the rest of the film, Sook-hee and her foes do battle on a speeding bus that bulldozes through traffic as their brawl brings it ever closer to crashing – at long last, South Korea hath given the world its answer to “Mad Max: Fury Road”.
Although weighed down by a ponderous and much too uneventful second act, “The Villainess” is a visceral, must-see, action experience, and a real achievement in fluid and sweeping camera work that lets you devour the ballet of onscreen carnage from every possible angle. Any one of the film’s action sequences would be enough to gladly handover the ticket price for and together make “The Villainess” a true four-course meal of skull-stomping, sword-slicing, action-packed insanity!
- Kim Ok-bin holds a 2nd Dan in Taekwondo and a 3rd Dan in Hapkido.
- The film received a 4-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
- The film also received the Daniel Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the 16th New York Asian Film Festival.