You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Villainess’

Korean director Jung Byung-gil's female revenge action movie has more braun than brains.

Jung Byung-gil
Kim Ok-vin, Shin Han-kyu, Bang Sung-jun, Kim So-hyung. (Korean dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6777338/

Channeling “La femme Nikita,” “Kill Bill,” Nikkatsu’s ’70s female exploitation films and a gazillion Hong Kong martial arts heroines, “The Villainess” nonetheless succeeds in being one-of-a-kind for its delirious action choreography and overall narrative dementia. Writer-director Jung Byung-gil indulges in all the excesses of South Korean screen violence, punishing his avenging angel played by Kim Ok-vin as much as she does her foes, the cumulative effect of which is a brain-melting daze for the audience.

Although the film premiered in the midnight section of the Cannes film festival and promptly sold U.S. rights to Well Go USA, sales company Contents Panda may find it hard to generate as much critical and commercial buzz as they did for “Train to Busan” when it bowed in the same section last year. Still, “The Villainess” is a must-have for genre and fantastic fests.

The opening sequence, which serves up seven minutes of nonstop carnage from a subjective POV, should be branded on viewers’ memory. All one can see are swarms of gangsters being hacked, stabbed, punched, kicked — their incomprehension of their own sudden, violent deaths giving the effect of blackly comic slapstick. Like “The Raid,” there’s an unabashed lack of plot, motive or meaning for the sake of pure adrenaline rush. Still, unlike the relatively elegant Indonesian martial arts in that movie, action choreographer Kwon Gui-duck seems to get high from just spraying blood — jet streams of it — all over the place.

Sook-hee (Kim), the one dishing out the damage, remains mysteriously unseen until the moment she leaps to almost certain death, only to wake up with bonus plastic surgery and the chance to live a new life, without paying for the trail of mangled corpses she’s left behind. Of course, there’s a Faustian deal in the mix: She must work as an assassin for the government’s secret service for 10 years before she can walk free.

Those familiar with Luc Besson’s “Nikita” will recognize the film’s premise, the only main deviation being that Sook-hee gives birth to a daughter while in custody, which ups the stakes but also paves the way for soppy melodrama. There’s also a variation on the romantic arc. Like Nikita, Sook-hee also dates a regular neighborhood guy, except he’s actually an undercover agent Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun) sent to keep tabs on her. Since it’s something the audience knows from the start while she’s kept in the dark, it whips up intrigue and fluffy charm reminiscent of rival-spies movie “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” It’s clear that before long, both start to prefer their roles as an ordinary nuclear family to their true identities.

However, as Sook-hee’s past begins to catch up with her, potentially jeopardizing her assignments, her backstory is divulged in fragments that confuse more than elucidate why she went on the rampage at the outset. It boils down to the trauma caused by the two men who influenced the protagonist most in her early life: her father and Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), the mafia boss who brought her up to be a deadly killer as well as his lover.

The screenplay by Jung and co-writer Jung Byung-sik muddles their self-explanatory connections with dense plotting and digressions, including a vendetta with a Chinese-Korean gang. Editor Heo Sung-mee’s technique is flashy, and his fast, edgy cutting gives action scenes great dynamism, but the same technique doesn’t work when applied to dramatic exposition. For example, he undermines the suspense by repeatedly revisiting a scene in which Sook-her as a girl witnessed horrific violence, since it was obvious from the first flashback who the culprit was.

The film might be more enjoyable if the largely improbable plot served only as a functional cue for action set pieces, which are madly kinetic. But Kim seems to be carried away with drawing out the love-hate, life-and-death relationship between Sook-hee and her old flame, which becomes more lurid without gaining in originality. It doesn’t take a Tarantino buff to notice how the story and characterization are derivative of the “Kill Bill” films And the heroine is put through the emotional wringer in ways that are more sadistic and misogynistic than Uma Thurman’s character endured there.

With her striking features and petite figure, Kim exudes a subtle eroticism which proved electrifying in such racy, artsily twisted works as Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst.” But for a role that requires rich emotional heft, she lacks the physical stature of Korean divas like Bae Doo-na or the range and refinement of Jeon Do-yeon. She does display great exuberance in combat, a fighting bull charging at matadors with all her might, although being required to wear heavy makeup half the time limits the performance. As her mysterious and masterful lover, rough and growling Shin hardly convinces as one who can steal a woman’s heart.

As in his last film, the serial-killer action-thriller “Confession of Murder,” vehicle and highway mayhem play a significant part, as Gui stages a midnight motorbike chase and a stunt atop a speeding bus with jaw-dropping abandon.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Villainess'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Midnight) May 26, 2017. Running time: 129 MIN. (Original title: "AK-Nyeo")

Production: (South Korea) A Next Entertainment World (in South Korea), WellGo USA (in U.S.) release of a Next Entertainment World presentation of a Apeita production. (International sales: Contents Panda, Seoul.) Producer: Jung Byung-gil. Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek.

Crew: Director: Jung Byung-gil. Screenplay: Jung, Jung Byung-sik. Camera (Color, widescreen): Park Jung-hun. Editor: Heo Sung-mee. Music: Koo Ja-wan.

With: Kim Ok-vin, Shin Han-kyu, Bang Sung-jun, Kim So-hyung. (Korean dialogue)

More Film

  • Steven Spielberg Branko Lustig

    'He Left Me Speechless': Steven Spielberg Remembers Branko Lustig

    Steven Spielberg has offered a touching remembrance of Branko Lustig, the Holocaust survivor who produced “Schindler’s List” with Spielberg and Gerald Molen and died Thursday in Croatia. “I was heartbroken to hear of Branko’s passing and my thoughts are with his family and friends,” Spielberg said. “When we first met to discuss ‘Schindler’s List,’ he [...]

  • Dylan Brosnan and Paris BrosnanGolden Globe

    Pierce Brosnan’s Sons Paris and Dylan Brosnan Named 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors

    Pierce Brosnan’s two youngest sons, Paris and Dylan Brosnan, have been named as the 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced on Thursday evening. Paris and Dylan are also the sons of journalist and author Keely Shaye Smith. The ambassador(s), a title that typically goes to the son or daughter of a [...]

  • Joaquin Phoenix'Joker' film premiere, Arrivals, 57th

    Film News Roundup: Joaquin Phoenix Honored by Palm Springs Film Festival

    In today’s film news roundup, Joaquin Phoenix is honored for “Joker”; Legion M backs Joe Manganiello’s “Archenemy”; sales have launched on “Lev Yashin: The Dream Goalkeeper”; Warner Bros. shuffles execs and Universal launches a first-of-its-kind animation writing program. HONOR Joaquin Phoenix has been selected as the recipient of the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s chairman’s [...]

  • Danny Huston

    Danny Huston Discusses the Significance of 'Last Photograph'

    In the decades since Danny Huston made his feature directing debut with “Mr. North,” his 1988 film adaptation of the Thornton Wilder novel “Theophilus North,” he has kept busy in front of the cameras as one of film and television’s most versatile and sophisticated character players. In just the past year, small-screen viewers have been [...]

  • Rocketman

    'Rocketman': Chris Dickens Discusses the Inside Story of Editing 'I'm Still Standing'

    Endings are so important and how the viewer leaves the cinema is crucial. For editor Chris Dickens, finding the perfect ending for “Rocketman” was paramount, but it was also a challenge. Elton John’s hit “I’m Still Standing” was going to end the film with the original idea of going to Cannes to recreate the video [...]

  • A general view of the skyline

    United Media Asia Strikes Deal With Indonesian Giant Kompas Gramedia

    Newly-formed content finance, production and distribution company United Media Asia has struck a first look deal, brokered by Hollywood talent agency CAA, with Indonesian media giant Kompas Gramedia. United has also unveiled its first two feature films. The partnership provides UMA with access to Kompas Gramedia’s media network and its 100,000 pieces of intellectual property, [...]

  • Taron Egerton Fashion

    Taron Egerton's Stylist Used Elton John as Inspiration on Press Tour

    Showstopping looks: For Taron Egerton’s “Rocketman” tour, stylist Gareth Scourfield nodded to Elton John’s iconic wardrobe with bold colors, patterns and silhouettes: “We got a bit more eccentric.” May 16 “Elton is the real original showman,” says Scourfield, who met Egerton through another client, Egerton’s “Rocketman” co-star Richard Madden. “Part of Taron as a man [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content