Film Review: The Villainess

'Hardcore Henry' meets 'La Femme Nikita' in this blood-soaked South Korean assassin’s ball.
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In the South Korea of Byung-gil Jung’s primal and frequently nonsensical action ballet, it’s hard to believe that there is anybody left alive in the whole country. This isn’t just because the movie’s many stack-’em-high action sequences leave enough bodies behind that the morgues would run out of space. It’s that the plot concerns not one but two organizations whose primary business appears to be murder. Apparently, it’s a buyer’s market, meaning that a monomaniacal assassin like Sook-hee (Ok-vin Kim) is going to be in high demand.

The Villainess begins in GoPro mode, with Sook-hee only visible to the viewer as a pair of arms wielding guns and knives in a furious assault on a building that appears to be a criminal lair. That’s all we can assume in this Hardcore Henry headbanger of a cold open—which isn’t even partially explained until much later—since at one point she comes across what appears to be a drug lab, and also most of the men are armed and not in uniform. But context isn’t really the point here; this is a delivery system for first-person videogame ultraviolence. In any case, room after room, hallway after hallway, she shoots, slashes, stabs, kicks, punches and slashes some more until the place has been turned into an abattoir. At some point before she’s finished with the bloodletting, and well before we know if the diminutive and unstopped Sook-hee is a mass murderer, agent of righteous vengeance or something in between, the movie switches out of first-person mode. This makes for a minor improvement.

After that, The Villainess, which is nothing is not eagerly derivative, toggles over to La Femme Nikita mode. The near-catatonic Sook-hee is taken in by a secret intelligence agency that likes her way with violence. They stage a fake suicide, give her a new identity and surgically modified face, and feed her into their assassin-training program, which is like a finishing school with martial arts and target practice on the curriculum. None of this sits too well with Sook-hee, particularly once she discovers that she is pregnant and starts getting shadowy flashbacks of childhood trauma and the killing of her husband.

When her taskmaster Chief Kwon (an appropriately icy Seo-hyung Kim) says they’ll set her free after she works for the agency as a “sleeper cell” for ten years, however, Sook-hee isn’t in a position to refuse. After all, according to Kwon, the job is fairly simple: “I assign…you kill.” Adding a wrinkle to this formula is that Sook-hee doesn’t know that each woman in the training program is being watched by male agents who argue over which one they will get assigned to. Once cut loose in Seoul, where she pretends to be a single mother working as an actress, Sook-hee is happy to find that her handsome next-door neighbor, Joong-sang (Ha-kyun Shin), is helpful, good with kids and a relentless flirt. Given that she doesn’t know he’s her handler and she’s undercover, how real is the romance that develops?

The Villainess isn’t the kind of movie to waste time on such questions, or to investigate its questionably reactionary sexual politics. Once the requisite happy bonding has occurred, the plot pivots dramatically back to action. Not that the story ever let up on that, seeding in memories of sledgehammer attacks and other bloodletting to continually throw off Sook-hee’s equilibrium. As the plot brings Sook-hee’s story full-circle to her foggily remembered origins, the amplitude picks back up. Jung unfurls one kinetic set-piece after another, from a swordfight on motorcycles to a claustrophobic battle royale on a speeding public bus. He even tosses in a sequence where Sook-hee must secretly assemble, use and hide a sniper rifle while in her wedding dress that’s a near-direct cop of a similar scene from Nikita.

The frequent resorts to point-of-view cinematography in the action scenes are meant to ramp up the relentless intensity, smashing through shattering windows with characters or being so close to the bloodletting that arterial spray splatters the lens (gruesome stabs to the neck are a favored method of assault here). But the result of all this jury-rigged trickery—the seeming single shot of the opening sequence was done over five days and spliced together—is more distancing than anything else. By making the camera a part of the action instead of an observer of it, the tension is flattened out rather than heightened. This doesn’t help matters when already the fighting style leaves something to be desired. The choreography is on the sluggish side and Jung’s penchant for having assailants attack the always outnumbered Sook-hee in easy-to-handle ones and twos, or be conveniently armed only with swords when she’s out of ammo feels positively Steven Seagal-like. If there had been a moment or two where Jung could have conjured up a few moments of genuine sympathy for Sook-hee in this cool and mechanistic movie, all that might not have mattered.

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