Part of, and the final teaser screening for, the London Korean Film Festival being shown at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess is outwardly an action-revenge story but it has much more to it than that. Part drama, part noir/thriller/crime/mystery, it certainly tries to mix things up.
The opening sequence is fantastically done; a first-person fight scene as, you assume, our main protagonist Sook-hee battles through corridors, rooms and staircases against multiple, and I mean multiple, enemies. Reminiscent of the narrow, claustrophobic OldBoy corridor scene but taken with a pinch of Doom/Hardcore Henry (but with a large amount of added class), it really kicks things off with a bang. Following on from this Sook-hee is taking into custody and then enrolled into some kind of covert agency specialising in female operatives. Once this has been established the film then takes the liberty of throwing some more ideas into the mix: Time jumps forwards and backwards, multiple plot lines and characters appear and you aren’t given much time to catch on. Potentially hard to keep up with, a few times I’m sure I missed something or struggled to keep up with what was happening but ultimately it didn’t affect the film as a whole. Even with all of these different threads, it does come together later on in the film and you do, thankfully, get a good amount of closure. The time hopping is handled pretty well from where we begin the film, which is actually somewhere in the middle of the timeframe. Moustaches appear and disappear, hairstyles change and, luckily for the main protagonist, her facial reconstruction definitively marks out her before and after, allowing for easy recognition of the time.
Whilst the story is engaging and the characters interesting there is a large part of this film that is dedicated to developing a burgeoning love story for Sook-hee which, amidst the action, seems like another film altogether. For me it dragged and didn’t really add much to the film as there is a previous emotional connection that supersedes this, and is ultimately the one that drives her on to commit her acts of retribution, so this one felt superfluous, and to devote that amount of time to it left me wondering what this film was trying to achieve here.
The actors, particularly Ok-bin Kim as Sook-hee, put in some amazing work. Our main protagonist is ably supported by her handlers and her targets. The action/fight scenes are breathtaking at times but, as mentioned above they are scattered sparsely throughout. But when they are on screen it really is to be marvelled at. Some of the angles chosen for these scenes and transitions give it a level of interest that a straightforward action sequence wouldn’t have. Added to this, the choice of fight locations are inventive and really add another layer to the spectacle and are built on some really good work that is evident in parts of Jung Byung-gil’s previous film, Confession of Murder. All credit must go to the camerawork during these fight and action scenes, managing to maintain a good level of visibility whilst also conveying the hectic nature is top notch, weaving in and out, playing with perspective and viewpoint/gaze, and also switching between first and third person.
As an action film it has some amazing highs but doesn’t manage to carry these through the whole film. As a drama, it doesn’t quite have the emotional connection to make you feel enough and as a thriller/crime/mystery it tries its best but doesn’t devote enough to the plot or investigation or reasons behind the work the agency are doing for you to be fully enrapt by what is happening. Putting them all together is a bold decision and it so nearly works.
Inherently I had some issues with Sook-hee’s motivation for this work. The agency have some leverage over her but, just like with Wonder Woman, it seems a woman cannot be strong for herself but always needs a man to help her, to depend on, to provide her with meaning and to define her. With a character as obviously strong and determined like Sook-hee is it felt a bit of a let down once again not allowing her to be strong independent of any male influence.
As part of the London Korean Film Festival, I am so happy to have seen this, however for me it didn’t quite live up to the early promise. However, you should definitely experience this film though and is a great example of the kind of vivid, inventive film making that Korean cinema is capable of. Strikingly shot and amazingly choreographed, well acted and a fair story make this well worth a watch.