The Villainess, a 2017 South Korean action film, might not be the wall-to-wall action film its marketing promises, but a strong emotional story and equally impressive performances, combined with groundbreaking action sequences (some of the maddest stunts seen in quite some time), make this an unconventional and engrossing action movie. The plot centers on Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin - Thirst), a highly trained assassin who, following a rage-fueled assault on a criminal organization, is captured and arrested. She makes a deal to work as an operative for a secret government agency for a period of 10 years, after which time she will be granted freedom and the chance to live out a normal life.
The misdirection of making us think this story will be more action packed then it is isn't limited to the marketing. The film opens with an extended, and mindblowing, action sequence that would have been the climactic battle of almost any other action movie. Sook-hee penetrates a criminal hideout and singlehandedly dispatches approximately sixty bad guys in increasingly inventive and bloody fashion. The sequence is shot in a "first-person shooter" video game style reminiscent of the 2015's Hardcore Henry, in that we see all the violence and brutality happening from Sook-hee's point of view, which accomplishes the required task of not only asking for our attention, it commands it. But unlike Hardcore Henry, which is shot entirely in this fashion and which was clearly a movie made for video game fans both in terms of visuals and plot, The Villainess uses this POV style to complement its action sequences but it isn't the driving force of the movie, and it doesn't distract us from the strong human element of the story. This human element is made apparent even during this carnage-filled opening sequence as we hear in Sook-hee's voice traces of exhaustion, rage, and even a bit of fear, humanizing her to us before we ever lay eyes on her.
While this balls-to-the-wall, blood-drenched introduction to the film does succeed in drawing the audience in, it does leave one wondering if the remainder of the film's action sequences will be able to top it and if we haven't now been desensitized to film's remaining violence and action. And as is to be expected, while the remainder of the film's few action sequences is exciting and equally impressive on a technical level, they never quite live up to the sheer "Holy shit!" factor of those opening few minutes of pure brutality. And, at least in regards to the film's action scenes, leaves the slight impression that we've experienced a premature climax followed by the foreplay. I'm usually all for unconventional approaches, but at least in this one instance, the more conventional build up to the spree of violence might have served the film better.
Which isn't to say the remainder of the film is boring, not at all. For one thing, that opening sequence leaves us wondering what led to Sook-hee's single-handed assault on that criminal compound. Despite the minor predictability of the overall plot, Sook-hee's backstory is revealed in an effective and non-linear fashion through several flashbacks which are placed strategically throughout the film in ways that serve and enhance the "present day" story. In other films, flashbacks are often shoehorned into the story in a jarring way that distracts us from the story's central narrative, so those few times when this tool is used skillfully never goes unnoticed and is always appreciated by yours truly.
Following the action-packed opening, much of the film's focus switches to establishing character arcs and relationships, and as a result, becomes much less action-heavy than what we were led to expect, which might have been a bad thing under other circumstances, but the film's pacing, strong performances, and relatable dialogue keep us invested. Kim Ok-bin's fierce, in-your-face performance stole the show in 2009's "Thirst" (my review for which you can read here), and now with "The Villainess" she showed me how deep her varied talents run. In contrast to Thirst's "lively" heroine Tae-ju, Sook-hee is a much more reserved character, but no less emotional. Even before the film starts showcasing her backstory, we know that this is a woman who has not had an easy life. She's a woman who has suffered so much loss that she now feels only rage and paranoia. All of this is displayed through Kim Ok-bin's face and body language with no need for expositional dialogue. Throughout the first quarter of the film, we only ever see her smile when she is in combat. As the story progresses and we follow Sook-hee build something resembling a normal life for herself, we see those brief smiles slowly extend to other aspects of her life, and with zero exposition, we understand how difficult it is for her to drop her defenses even a little bit and allow herself to feel something other than cold rage. And we understand how, for her, the bravery required to open her heart to others is much more difficult to tap into than that which was required to singlehandedly take on sixty or so hardened criminals. All of this is conveyed to us by Kim Ok-bin's performance. Additionally, the film's dialogue and her chemistry with other actors only serve to strengthen the element of humanity present throughout the picture.
I stated earlier that as impressive as they are on a technical level, the subsequent action sequences in the film don't quite live up to the opening scene on a visceral level, and while that it is true, the time spent developing Sook-hee's character and defining the strong emotional element of the film serves to make the climactic battles emotionally satisfying. Most people making an action movie will feel the need to insert an action sequence at predetermined intervals in order to maintain the audience's attention. Director Jung Byung-gil instead chooses to let Sook-hee's story play out at its own pace, even if that means allowing longer than normal periods between action sequences. He seems to understand that the action scenes should serve the story and its characters, not the other way around.
In summary, despite some minor predictability in its plot, and action sequences that peak early on (but remain consistently impressive), director Jung Byung-gil shows his skill at being the kind of director that can tackle both grounded, relatable drama and visceral, exciting, and hypnotic action with seeming ease. And Kim Ok-bin further establishes herself as the kind of versatile actor who has the range and skill to tackle almost any material. All of which combined makes "The Villainess" a refreshingly human action movie, featuring a refreshingly human heroine who is both a multifaceted, three-dimensional character and of course, a major bad-ass.
8.5 / 10