Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess opens with a sprawling first-person action sequence. Filmed to look like one continuous take, it involves guns, knives, hatchets, swords, dudes kicked through windows, and showers of blood. It’s brutal, relentless, and sets the tone for the action-heavy revenge narrative that follows, thematically as well as aesthetically.
The Villainess shares obvious DNA strands with earlier South Korean crime thrillers epitomized by filmmakers like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho, and others. It has a spiraling plot, labyrinthine and coiled to the brink of coherence; a grim, gritty, down and dirty vibe; and a penchant for graphic (some may say gratuitous, though not me) violence.
A twisted riff on La Femme Nikita, filtered through a Kill Bill lens, after a woman, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin, Thirst), goes on the aforementioned kill-crazy rampage, she’s recruited—there should quotation marks around that word—into a covert governmental cadre of assassins, teased with the dangling, and likely bogus, carrot of freedom at the end of the tunnel.
And that’s just the start. From there, Jung and co-writer Jung Byeong-sik stack layer on top of layer. Flashbacks take us to earlier stages of Sook-hee’s life, it features multiple romantic angles, she briefly has nemesis, and a parallel story unfolds exposing past wounds. Some of the plotting and reveals sing and shock, though others plod and stumble. Betrayals and shifting allegiances pile so high the whole thing teeters precariously like a near-the-end game of Jenga. Though it never quite topples, it’s not always structurally sound, and clarity often becomes an issue.
The Villainess kicks off at a breakneck pace—the first 45 minutes soar past in a blur of intrigue, motorcycle sword fights, and religious iconography touching on themes of birth, rebirth, and resurrection. From there, however, the middle portion bogs down. After Sook-hee finishes her lengthy training period, when she settles into her cover life as an actress and single mom, the movie takes an extended detour into a place I call Sleepy Time Village.
Kim Ok-bin does her best in these scenes and delivers a performance that’s ranks up there with her breakout in Thirst, creating compelling lead, even in the dullest of times. Attempts to add layers of drama and emotion work best when paired with the up-tempo moments and forays into Sook-hee’s backstory. This element is strongest when she has Lee Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), a shadowy man from her past, to bounce off. But when it fully falls into domestic romance territory with Jung Hyun-soo (Sung Joon)—a relationship we know from the get-go is feeble bullshit—it strays into hackneyed melodrama territory. Kim and Shin have chemistry and firel; Sung Joon, on the other hand, plays glorified smitten teen who’s bad at his one job.
But it’s the action that sells The Villainess, and the frenetic, inventive approach places it among the year’s best in the genre. Jung Byung-gil and cinematographer Park Jung-hun stage elaborate sequences, favoring those that play out as single, continuous takes and rely on extensive, ornate choreography. At times, it verges a bit too close to Bourne-style shaky cam, and the swooping camera can be dizzying—and in non-action sequences, they fall a bit too in love with visual tricks, especially ubiquitous match cuts early on—but it’s a singularly ambitious, impressive visual feat.
Frenzied and kinetic, The Villainess careens all over the place with reckless abandon. While it spirals out into messy structural territory—this is not the straightforward, pared down revenge of John Wick and it’s ilk—it hits manic, thrilling, dangling-off-a-speeding-bus-while-wielding-a-hatchet highs. [Grade: B]