Jung Byung-gil breaks new action ground in Fantasia 2017 film 'The Villainess'
With Atomic Blonde (starring Charlize Theron) out this week and Proud Mary (with Taraji P. Henson) on the horizon for a mid-January 2018 release, the next few months are shaping up to be a good time for female-lead action movies. But, really, you can never have too many action heroines beating men up. It’s the eleventh commandment or something. So director Jung Byung-gil brought The Villainess into the world, and a good time was had by all.
I had the chance to speak with Jung at Montreal’s Fantasia 2017, where The Villainess had its North American premiere; Well Go USA Entertainment releases it in the United States on August 25th. (You can see my capsule review here.) Kim Ok-bin stars as Sook-hee, a trained assassin-turned-government agent who’s first seen charging down a hallway, taking down a nameless horde of gangsters in retaliation (we later learn) for the death of her husband. Or, rather, we don’t see her. This first scene is shot in first-person shooter video game style, with a stunt performer(‘s arms) standing in for Ok-bin. Mid-way through the fight, Sook-hee crashes into a mirror, and The Villainess makes a smooth, swift transition from first person to third.
For the next two hours, the camera constantly shifts back and forth between the two, giving the film a hyperkinetic whirligig effect that proves its most standout feature. (You may want, here, to comapre The Villainess' first-person segments to Hardcore Henry; Jung specifies that, whereas that film relied heavily on jump cuts, The Villainess' camerawork is more fluid, less choppy. It makes for a stunning visual effect.) As expected, Jung notes that he was inspired in this approach by video-games; he expects that those sorts of “virtual reality techniques” that make the audience “feel like they are the person starring in the movie” will become more frequently used in movies going forward.
From a technical standpoint, for the first-person shots a stunt performer would wear a camera over their head, hanging at chin level so as to not obscure the line of sight. When you can actually see Sook-Hee, that’s Kim Ok-bin doing her own action. The exception is a handful of stunts that would have been unsafe for her to perform, such as Sook-hee diving out of a window. Jung Byung-gil knows from stunt work himself; he trained as an action stuntman before choosing to pursue directing instead.
Its distinctive style of filming isn’t the only thing that makes The Villainess unusual… at least, in Jung’s native Korea. In Hollwood, we may be looking at a burgeoning Renaissance of female-led action. In Korea, not so much. In his hometown market, Jung explains, “there are not many films where women have a leading role. And fewer films where women have a leading action role.” On top of that, “in general the Korean market is more favorable to dramas than this kind of action thriller—movies where the whole family can watch together perform better than movies for people ages 19 or older.” So films that are family-friendly and male-led tend to do better… and The Villainess, female-led and hyper-violent, is neither.
How, then, did The Villainess even get made? “In my case, the investors, the companies who financed my film, trusted me. They allowed me to do what I wanted to do.” (The critical success of his second film, 2012’s Confession of Murder, surely had an impact there.) “I was a special case. The investors trusted me totally.”
Still, making The Villainess was a risk… and one that’s played off internationally, given the film’s extremely positive reception when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Interestingly, Jung admits that audience reaction in Korea, where it debuted last month, hasn’t been so rapturous. “The reaction of the audiences outside of Korea is better than in Korea,” he notes. “In Korea, we got a good reaction—it was OK. But I got really good reviews, really good feedback, audiences applauding the film outside Korea—for example, in the United States or in Cannes.” Which isn’t to say that The Villainess flopped in Korea by any stretch—it still “performed quite well,” which could be indicative of a “transition” in the way female-led action movies are received there.
American producers, anyway, are already onboard with what Jung is throwing down. “After making The Villainess, I got a lot of calls from Hollywood, and they were very enthused with my movies,” Jung explains. The reason is the The Villainess had more “detailed aspects”—aka more attention paid to character, action and plot and less CGI wizardry—than more big-budget, explosion-heavy action extravaganzas. As Jung moves on in his career, that’s what he wants to double down on: more practical action, less CGI. “I want the audience to feel, ‘Oh, it looks like they are really fighting each other,’” he explains. “I don’t know what kind of movie I will make next, but if I make another action movie I’ll try to reduce, as much as possible, the use of computer graphics. If I’m making a fantastic-type character, a big monster or something like that, it’s inevitable to use CG techniques. However, one of the movies I’m thinking of making would have, I hope, [a minimal number] of scenes using CG—except for the parts where I have to erase wires, that kind of thing.”