Incredible action sequences laboured with one too many twists which feel somewhat familiar.
A woman forcibly inducted into a secret organisation of assassins finds herself at odds with her missions when events from her bloody and tragic past resurface.
“Korean John Wick” is an easy sell, but that is probably the best way to describe The Villainess to current audiences. This is a a high octane action movie, mixing the likes of Oldboy, The Raid and experimental indie film Hardcore Henry with the Korean action scene’s quantity of blood and chaos.
The film hits the ground running by throwing the audience immediately into a POV (point of view) sequence of carnage, filmed as a single-take action sequence from the perspective of our protagonist Sook-hee (Ok-Bin Kim) as she dances and dives her way between swords and daggers, dispatching bad guys as effectively as Min-Sik Choi in the aforementioned 2003 thriller. The sequence is immediately suggesting the entire film is set in POV, with us the audience as the protagonist, but while Hardcore Henry was a great, meaningless experiment, luckily this new film doesn’t stick with it. This opening acts more like a toy box, a preview of coming attractions, as our perspective changes the moment Sook-hee receives a blow to the head. A clever device.
The film is full of startlingly new and clever action moments like these, most notable being a motorcycle chase that makes the entire highway chase in The Matrix Reloaded look like child’s play. Want to see the camera swing around and between parrying swords and then swing underneath the bike and around its front wheel while in motion? This is probably the film for you.
Of course, a lot of this will be aided with CGI wizardry, and despite some brief flashes of blades that don’t exist, the effects used are seamlessly implemented.
But The Villainess isn’t all action and carnage, despite perhaps wanting to be. The story’s second act follows Sook-hee’s awkward integration into an everyday alias and her secretive employer’s insidious efforts to control everything she does. This section may be slower and surprisingly lengthy (for not having any action involved) but it is full of setup for betrayal and a gripping third act. Of course, the script and the screenplay are surprisingly archaic once the dust settles; what appears to be initially complicated turns out to be needlessly so or even for sake of convenience. But the film’s parallels with such stories as Luc Besson’s Nikita are a blessing in disguise, lest it become as totally irrelevant as 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It isn’t quite style over substance, but it is close.
The performances are somewhat unmemorable beyond the lead performance from Ok-bin Kim, who does a great job of inner turmoil and anxiety in dramatic moments but also demonstrates great physical work in the action sequences. It doesn’t have the same powerful or memorable lines or performances as Oldboy or John Wick. There were a lot of moments were blood looked suspiciously fake, a little too magenta for my liking, which in a Korean production like this is quite unforgivable.
The title is a bit of a misnomer too… “The Villainess” suggests she is outright evil, but the film paints her in a tragic light; people using her to their own ends and keeping her in the dark about her own life. It was quite vexing.
If you want a lot of incredible Korean action (both vehicular and martial) and bloody carnage, The Villainess should not be missed out. With Hollywood’s intentions of ramming CG actors and action sequences, this sort of film is a joy to watch instead. Just don’t expect a fresh storyline.
Additional Marshmallows: Yes, if one girl has a rifle with a scope and the rest of them don’t… she will probably hit her target more efficiently…