The opening scene of "The Villainess" has the deeply unsettling look of a video game. Specifically, first-person shooters, which require the perfect mix of head shots and anticipation of predictable AI behavior necessary to get through the few dozen mooks that stand between you and the next level. The sense of discomfort is further heightened by how obviously human all the various stuntpeople in this movie are. So for this, and all subsequent action scenes, horrified as I was by the unbroken chain of grotesque violence, my eyes were glued wide open in sheer overwhelming shock.
That's a very odd feeling to have- that a movie is simultaneously desensitizing yet the craftmanship is so incredible I can't really bear to not pay attention. How in the world did director Jung Byung-gil manage to film any of this? Note the implausible extent to which he relies on single shot photography. For several minutes at a time, blood-soaked battles, falls from high places, and vehicular combat all manage to go on without a hitch.
Maybe. Part of the appeal of the cinematography here is the sheer sense of chaos. Honestly I suspect there was some improvisation at play. The guys playing the mooks know they need to fail, and Kim Ok-bin knows that she needs to win. Well, Kim Ok-bin or her stuntwoman anyway. Again, director Jung Byung-gil leaves so little room for error here it's genuinely hard to tell the difference.
...Oh right, the plot. So, Sook-hee (played by Kim Ok-bin) is an assassin who, apparently, lives in a world where assassins are always constantly killing other assassins for reasons that are never terribly clear. I'd complain about the implausibility but hey, "killing probably bad people at random in unnecessarily complicated ways" is more or less the operating military policy of the United States government, so it's hardly unrealistic. Incidentally, Sook-hee does eventually end up working for the South Korean government, under orders from Sook (played by Kim Seo-hyung) and immediate supervision from Hyeon-soo (played by Sung Joon).
As much as action scenes are the main standout quality in "The Villainess", I must admit I was also impressed how every so often director Jung Byung-gil would abruptly transition to a completely different form of genre film just for kicks and giggles. Wait, what? It's a romantic drama? Wait, what? When did this flashback happen? Wait, what? Sook-hee married an assassin? That would be a spoiler except that nearly every single character in the movie is as assassin, so I could be referring to anyone.
It's pretty easy to figure why Sook-hee is doing what she's doing at any moment, it's just the broader perspective that makes no sense. Which works, since as far as "The Villainess" is concerned, Sook-hee has tunnelvision. Life for her is just a sequence of events designed to allow her to get revenge on somebody, somewhere. It's little surprise that in the long run violence is the solution to all of Sook-hee's problems even if in the short term, she does face the occasional moment of dramatic doubt.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Villainess""
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