I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Villainess

THE VILLAINESS is LA FEMME NIKITA with a little KILL BILL by way of South Korean cinema. A young woman with a troubled past has her identity erased, is trained to kill for the government, put undercover, given a mission, trying to earn her freedom. But she was already pretty damn good at killing before the feds got involved. They capture and recruit her after an incredible opening massacre, done in her POV – it’s first person shooter/slasher/stabber/kicker-through-window – until she sees herself in a mirror, then gets her head smashed into it and the perspective separates from her body, rotating around her as she continues to fight, mostly using gym equipment (the jump rope is my favorite) as weapons.

As her captivity, training and missions are depicted in somewhat elliptical fashion, the events leading up to that rampage also come out piece-by-puzzle-piece in flashbacks, not even in chronological order within themselves, and with some characters played by different actors in different periods. I find the story at times confusing and overcomplicated, but still compelling. Even if I didn’t, I’d still call THE VILLAINESS a must-see for the most audacious, envelope-pushing action filmatism I’ve seen in quite a while.

I’m not actually sure why Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin [THIRST], but Min Ye-ji in the flashbacks) is called the villainess, but if she is one, who could blame her? That poor girl has been put through way too much. Like O-Ren Ishii she witnessed the death of her father from under a bed (his head sledge hammered, splattering blood on her face!) and never had time for dolls and jumprope (until the one she uses to tie around a guy’s neck and jump out a high window). She has two major long term relationships with men who are total liars, and one of them tries to kill her. Criminals attack her. The government enslaves her and makes her kill. The moment she finds out she has a daughter is the same moment she finds out that’s what they’ll use to make her cooperate. And SPOILER let’s just say this is a Korean movie, so bad things happen. I’ll leave it at that.

The world is shit and everybody is garbage. Leave this lady alone.

In the agency’s view they’re giving her a good deal, a chance at freedom and making a difference instead of the prison sentence she’s earned. Like xXx. But all the layers of facade are spirit-crushing. She’s not aware that they’re always watching her, that a group of boys are fighting over who gets to be her protector, that Jung Hyun-soo, her dorky neighbor in the rom-com section of the movie, is a plant. Yeah, I know, S.H.I.E.L.D. did the same thing to Steve Rogers, but it feels grosser when you see the guy falling in love with her while watching her on monitors, before they’ve met.

Still, these are the good guys. The other man in her life betrays her so spectacularly and on so many levels that it’s hard to really think badly of anybody else in the movie. Nobody can compete with that prick.

After the agency first grabs her, fakes her suicide, plastic surgeries her into a different actress, she puts up a fight, makes a run for it. She finds herself fleeing from a hospital room down a hallway and into a ballet class in progress. She pauses as if to wonder if it’s a dream. It’s painful when a woman leads her to a secret exit, only to turn on her right when she seems to be in the clear; moreso when she learns that the entire episode was pre-planned, and has to watch later recruits go through the whole thing themselves. But there’s a sort of camaraderie between those suffering through this, like people stuck in a shitty job who become like family.

Or at least some of them. There’s a mean girl assassin who tries to bully her when she arrives, which is kind of a kick. She pushes Sook-hee into sparring in sword-fight class and tries to go hard with her. Did you bother to find out if this new girl has been a trained assassin since the age of 10? Whoops. Ouch. That bully is in for a serious wooden-training-sword beatdown. But the next time they face off, in a race to assemble a gun and fire it, it flashes back to Sook-hee learning to do this as a child. The bully ends up on the floor crying, and I felt bad for her. She never does seem to learn her lesson, though.

It doesn’t matter how much you skip around in Sook-hee’s life, you’re gonna find some crazy violence. Beginning of the movie: massacre. Flashbacks: family tragedy, training for revenge, killing people. Rest of the movie: training to kill, assignments to kill. Sometimes it’s horrifying. Sometimes it’s awesome.

You probly saw the promo clip of the already famous motorcycle chase in which several riders sword fight while thundering through a freeway tunnel. Yeah, I see the transition from real speed-wobbling to green screens*, but I still can’t figure out how they did some of this stuff (the crashes must be real stunts?) and it never loses its sense of momentum or danger. More than anything it reminds me of the speeder bike chase in RETURN OF THE JEDI, a thrilling exception to the “practical is always better” rule of thumb.

And there are several action sequences, all very different from each other, that are just as mindblowing. Everything from sword and gun fights and long take chases to a battle on and inside a speeding and crashing bus. That opening made me think of the entirely-first-person action movie HARDCORE HENRY, which was very impressive on a technical level but unfortunately I found it interminable as a feature film. It proves that action is not just about imagining yourself in the place of the hero, but also seeing their physicality, their presence, their expressions. What good is an awesome move if they don’t get to pose afterwards? THE VILLAINESS does it right: they show off how far they can push this type of mayhem and then, right around the time our hearts are slowing back down to regular speed, they move on to the next technique. And they never get repetitive.

If you think about it the finale is like some FAST AND FURIOUS shit – she jams a water bottle on the gas pedal, kicks out the window, steers with one hand while sitting on the hood, jumps off onto a bus, swings around and kicks through the window, lands on board and has an ax fight, etc. etc. — but it’s all shot handheld put-you-in-the-middle-of-it style, not too shaky, and made to look like one continuous shot. It’s an over-the-top action movie that’s as technically astounding and “how did they do that?” innovative as ENTER THE VOID or GRAVITY.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the people who made this, so I’ll have to keep my eye out for them. The director/co-writer is Jung Byung-gil, who did the movie CONFESSION OF MURDER (2012) (remade this year in Japan as MEMOIRS OF A MURDERER). He also did a documentary called ACTION BOYS, about five people trying to become stuntmen. In an interview with Anthem Magazine he says “I did go to stunt school for six months, but I never worked as a stunt person.” He confirms that this experience aided him in pushing the action so far: “That perspective really helped me on THE VILLAINESS as well because I felt like I knew how to work with these stunt people. In turn, they understood where I was coming from as well because they knew my background. It created invaluable, mutual respect. I would ask them to try out new things that haven’t been done before and they were willing to attempt it and take the risk because we established that special connection.”

Man did that work. This is alot of movie. It’s every kind of melodrama  – revenge, betrayal, deceit, trauma, grief, more grief, love (of a father, a daughter, a boyfriend, a husband, a friend). There are dreams of better lives. She’s in her wedding dress about to go down the aisle when she gets a call to pull a sniper rifle out of a toilet and do a job.

It’s every type of thrill, every type of camera move or edit, and most of all every type of violence. Guns and knives and fists and feet of course, but also swords, hammers, hatchets, glass, vehicles. If you can’t take that sound of metal and then squishiness and then fluids and gurgling, do not watch.

It’s a 50-year storm of style and fury and I’m happy to ride the wave for as long as I can.

*Jung Byung-gil to Anthem Magazine: “Some people think we used CGI, but that wasn’t the case at all. We actually set up a real camera underneath the wheels.” I have no idea what that means. This article talks about the impossible camera moves, but it’s all speculation, and seems to assume it’s all real stuntwork.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 14th, 2018 at 10:16 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “The Villainess”

  1. Why is she called the villaness? She’s not…until that last shot. This is an origin story.

    Good review, great movie.

  2. emteem/Michael Mayket

    February 14th, 2018 at 10:40 am

    My wife got a new job a few months ago and it has her working evenings sometimes and I have started using those nights to catch up on my huge backlog of Asian action movies I’ve wanted to see. This was on the list, but I was planning to watch Chaser next, but this review might have just leapfrogged this one to the top of the list.

  3. I’m not as enamored of this one as you are. The movie seriously drags in spots, the plot is rather disjointed, and the action sequences themselves, what most people are presumably watching this for, are a mixed bag. Many of these are too close up/shaky(not Bourne level, but the action was clearer and easier to follow in Winter Soldier for example, which you criticized as being excessively shaky), then you have that whole 1st person thing which is a concept I’ve hated since I first saw a movie do it with Kickass. 1st person shooters are fun to play because you are controlling the character. They do NOT make for good action sequences, cause you can’t actually see the protagonist’s actual movements and skills(the lead is apparently a skilled martial artist, but you don’t actually get to SEE much of her fighting in the movie).

  4. I feel like you need to be Korean to fully follow the emotional logic of this one’s backstory, but I got the sense it wasn’t just prickishness that drove the bad guy.

    SPOILERS FOR A MOVIE THAT HAS MATBE TWO PLOT SURPRISES IF YOUVE SEEN ANY VERSION OF LA FEMME NIKITA:

    I think, in his psychotic way, the bad guy was expressing his love for The Villainess. He knew that she could never be fully happy unless she got her revenge on her father’s killer (i.e., him), but he also knew that she wouldn’t go through with killing him even if she learned the truth because she loved him too much. So he did the one thing his sociopathic logic dictated would solve the problem: Give her a reason (lots and lots of reasons) to either kill him or get herself killed in the process, thus saving her from a lifetime of disappointment and resentment. To this guy, failure to achieve self-actualization is a fate worse than death and certainly worse than grief (which, as a psychopath, he clearly does not feel or understand), so he thinks he’s doing her a favor by giving her the chance to become the whirlwind of vengeance he believes she needs to be. He doesn’t get that, for her, vengeance was merely an attempt to fill a hole inside. When she found other things to fill it, she was willing to let vengeance go. To him, this was weakness and failure to commit. He could never love someone who would give up on her mission in life so easily. Paradoxically, by giving her reason to kill him, he made her prove that she was worthy of his love.

    That’s my reading, anyway. I think it’s more intriguing than “This guy is just a prick.”

  5. That’s a really good take on the motivations of the antagonist.

  6. The action scenes in this film are terrific but I was slightly disappointed in the plot of the film. Still makes for a great action movie.

    Vern, you spoke about the directors earlier film Confession of Murder (2012). You really should give this film a look. It is a much better film than the Villainess, with a better plot and also has some terrific action scenes.

  7. The plot in this is all over the place but I still liked it. The action is great and the movie itself reminds me of the best John Woo films. Some of the action is highly unbelievable, especially the scene at the beginning where the thugs basically wait their turn to be killed instead of ganging up on her all at once. I really didn’t care because the artistry of the scene was so good that I just let the logic go and went with it. I’ll be watching for this director in the future.

  8. I had heard good things about this movie before I watched it so I probably came into it with too high expectations. I liked that the director was trying to do inventive stunts and fights in this movie but I felt the shooting style and constant flashbacks actually ended up detracting from the story. I am definitely not a fan of first person POV, especially when it comes to action. The concept of stitching together shots so it looks like a single take would probably work better when the “single take” did not go on for an entire scene. The ludicrously convoluted origin story of the villainess, told in flashbacks, I also just did not have the patience for.

    All in all, an interesting step in action cinema, that could be a stepping stone for better features.

  9. Ok, I chimed in once todsy, might as well keep going. Watched this one a few weeks back and thought it was a lot of fun. The flashbacks and different actors kept me from following the entire plot, but it was easy enough to get the gist of. The action scenes were really well dome, although the first person scene at the start could have been shorter.
    Definitely interested to see what kind of action the director can do in the future.

  10. I’m watching this right now based on this review on one of my Asian Action Cinema nights while the wife is out for the evening. That opening 7 minutes is one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen Martyrs like 4 times and every David Lynch and Guy Madden film. Holy shit.

  11. I intend to show at least that scene to my wife when she’s gets home. We’re 100% sympatico on TV, 95% on movies (Chainsaw 74 and The Descent were both too intense for her. I’ve never tried to show her Martyrs or Inside), and about 80% on music (I like hip hop more than her and she likes raggae and raggeton more than me) so I’m not watching Asian Action Cinema while she’s out because she wouldn’t like it, but because she has like 5 jobs and she’d rather watch a Marvel movie or fast and furious or horror movie when she has time to watch with me.

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