I feel like Korean cinema has gone through a lot of interesting growth over the last decade. Movies like to copy each other, like how Western movies began to copy Korean action-psychological thriller Oldboy in grittiness, pain, and visceral damage, until the terrible remake was made. You see inspirations from Kill Bill to John Wick echoing through this sort of movie, which has now begun to copy itself. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
The Villainess is a Korean action thriller from director Jung Byung-gil, who also co-wrote it. The movie stars Kim Ok-vin as assassin Sook-hee, a girl who gets involved with a lot of hurt. We start with a scene of first person action akin to Hardcore Henry, but soon the movie switches up again and we see the fighting fully on her face.
But her epic killing of these opening scene gangsters leads to getting recruited by one of those classic “secret government agencies” that promise her money and freedom — if she simply works for them for ten years. Killing and etc as they request it. Since she cannot escape without getting killed, and since she is pregnant, Sook-hee stays.
The movie jumps back and forth in time, slowly showing us Sook-hee’s tragic backstory. Her father was a mob boss but was killed, and she ended up being raised by other gangster Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun). And naturally she falls in love with him and marries him and gets pregnant by him. It’s not quite as creepy in the movie.
But we slowly see her process of training, dealing with mean girls (it’s an agency of all sleeper agents in training, all girls — sexist or homage?), and attempting to raise her daughter. Finally she’s sent out in the real world under an assumed name, where she meets neighbor Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun). They have a connection, but Hyun-soo has secrets of his own.
This movie loves its flashbacks and visual motifs, playing with stylistic transitions and switching camera styles for dramatic effect. It’s not all great, but in general, the fight scenes are kinetic, brutal, and sometimes exceptional. There are action moments that are even kind of jaw dropping. Kim Ok-vin does a very good job as the troubled assassin, the girl with emotions who doesn’t want them.
The supporting cast works well too, with only a few weak moments. Some of the characterizations are a bit caricaturish or flat, like the mean girls, and other times come out of nowhere, like a friend we’re supposed to care about but has had barely any screen presence.
Some of the twists aren’t exactly that clever, and the emotional resonance not particularly affecting, but this is more a fault of the story. It’s not such a complex one, but it’s a bit much at first. Once the movie gets going after a slow start, it’s quite fun. This isn’t as good as John Wick, of course, but it’s decent. I feel like perhaps the director bit off a bit more than he could chew here, but overall, it’s not bad at all.
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The Villainess has a run time of 2 hours 9 minutes and has not been rated by the MPAA.