The Villainess Review
The Villainess (2017) Film Review from the 16th Annual New York Asian Film Festival, a movie directed by Byung-gil Jung, and starring Ok-bin Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, Seo-hyeong Kim, Jun Sung, and Eun-ji jo.
The Villainess was, at its face, a tribute to Luc Besson‘s Le Femme Nikita, and the latest entry to a sub-genre that includes films like Salt, and Kill Bill. look past this broad description, however, and you’ll find enough originality to make this film a standout.
While straightforward, on some levels, there was enough convolution to the film’s plot & characters to prompt me avoiding any real synopsis detail; but there were some basics that can be covered.
If anyone asks, The Villainess follows Sook-Hee (Ye-Ji Min), from being orphaned, to being raised as a master assassin; from falling for her mentor, to being widowed; from avenging that fact, to being remade as a leveraged government assassin (Ok-bin Kim); from learning that her life was a lie, on all levels, to doing things about all of it. Vicerally inventive, wonderfully crafted, awful, awful things – and not done in order, either.
As a revenge/ redemption flick, The Villainess kept true to the spirit of the genre, until it didn’t – making its violence that much more impactful for it. Some of you may want the Sook-hee character to fight her way out of her predicament; some of you may want her to fight her way deeper in. If you subscribe to the former, you may be a better person than I; but the script proved more faithful to the film’s title than it initially let on. More on that, later.
As an action flick, The Villainess was outstanding. If the opening sequence doesn’t get your heart rate up… I’m not getting into all that could be wrong, there – but the combination of perspectives made for a truly immersive experience, while long tracking sequencing made it exhausting. That is a very good combination to take away from any action film.
Creativity is where such films set themselves apart, though, and there was no lack of that, here. Any comparisons to Hardcore Henry, or Quentin Tarantino‘s Crazy 88 set-piece, for example, should be regarded as a reinvention of the wheel – Jung-hun Park‘s motorbike fight sequence having upped the ante for both action cinematography & stunt-craft, in my opinion.
There was also an element of gallows humor to the film, that lent itself nicely to the plot’s formative moments. These were not “normal” people, under “normal” circumstance, and even the semblance of normalcy & self-determination came with a level of comic absurdity that helped round off the cast of characters.
The romantic element may have constituted a foregone conclusion, all things considered, but Jun Sung’s Hyun-soo character still managed a notable degree of earnest passion, in his relationship with Sook-hee; while Ha-kyun Shin managed to bring considerable tenderness to what was otherwise a role of emotional detachment. The romantic element was actually be the film’s most absurd aspect, on its face; but, again, these were not “normal” people. In addition to humor, the extraordinary-persons-attempt-normal-relations element provided the film with a genuine sense of sorrow & tragedy.
This constant shift in tone, balanced with over the top action, not only informed the heart & soul of the film, but kept it from stagnating, at any given point.
The tracking action sequences may have been the most memorable aspect of The Villainess; but the driving force of the film came from a deliberately non-linear narrative. Even if you are in a position to guess how it all comes together, there is satisfaction to be had by watching disjointed timelines fit together. Context was the key, as major plot points were revealed based on their relevance to other reveals – making the film’s revelations more like eureka moments, to the viewer.
We have seen this before, of course, and specifically in films that could easily spoil the principal twist; but since anyone familiar with the sub-genre (and paying attention) could at least get a sense for what that twist entails, I submit the notion that the twist might not have been all that important, in this case.
While still a primary driver/ motivator, to the plot/ action of the film, you will likely remember The Villainess for its action, rather than any other element. The nuance to its characters, and complexity to its plot, can therefore be considered effective cause to some truly memorable effect.
For all the genre-nods present, the film was careful to avoid what would’ve been some obvious plot-points. While a formative bonding was exploited, in typical fashion, a formative rivalry was not. In fact, Eun-ji Jo’s Kim Seon character briefly brought an edgy dynamic, to Sook-hee’s operation, before taking a somewhat unexpected route. I’d almost call it a wasted opportunity, had this unconventional turn not added to the film’s larger effort to keep genre tropes in check. At the very least, it set the stage for the rug being pulled out from under the redemption plot.
The Villainess was unapologetic, in showcasing itself as an action film – and having a better set-up to its action, than most of its kind, is hardly a disqualifier – but there was an extra element to this film that made it seem that much bolder.
The Villainess was not just a revenge flick, and certainly not a redemption story. Despite Byung-gil Jung’s claim of no plans for a sequel/ franchise, The Villainess was essentially a titular origin story. I think the real twist to the tale was the fact that the spectacle on the screen did not depict the actions of a monster, created by outside forces, seeking a semblance of normalcy; but rather the fact that normalcy was never a part of the equation, leaving nothing but monstrous revenge.
This was the story of what goes into the making of a villainess, plain & simple. Consider that the violence of the film was grounded, by an illusion of hope that was completely stripped away, and the prospects of what could come next should make for an effective chill to the closing scene. If not, then consider the titular smile that came with it.
If that smile didn’t touch you, in ways you should be careful to share with anyone, then you are definitely a better person than I.
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