Villainess review Kim Ok-bin Shin Ha-kyunYear: 2017
Director(s): Jeong Byeong-Gil
Writer(s): Jeong Byeong-Gil, Jung Byeong-sik
Region of Origin: South Korea

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Color, 124 mins

Synopsis: A woman raised to be an assassin attempts to gain her independence. 

Grief is a helluva thing, and it’s the earth-shaking emotion that fuels The Villainess. If there’s an unsaid mantra to director Jeong Byeong-Gil’s blood-soaked film, it’s that the past must literally die for the future to live. This primal inevitability is the backbone of Jeong’s film, yielding tragic consequences and an unrelenting barrage on the senses. Using wall-to-wall action and hyper-kinetic camera work, Jeong has raised the bar for action and then some, creating a new cinematic language of chaos rooted in loss and pain. Amidst the bullets and frenzied fights, star Kim Ok-bin lends the film its weary heart, a lost soul struggling to gain her independence. With its sharp synergy between story, star and immersion, The Villainess is absolutely a new benchmark for the genre. This is the type of film Hollywood lost the nerve to make years ago. While you can and should see it for its ultra-violent lunacy, you’ll also find yourself affected by the operatic tragedy that consumes its characters.

Since she was a child, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) was molded into the perfect weapon. When we first meet her, she’s in the middle of a rage-induced killing spree, working her way through a meth factory and killing every living thing in her path. Though she seemingly completes her task, she’s apprehended by the authorities who view her as a powerful asset. Sook-hee, also inexplicably pregnant, is given a deal by Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung), head of a shadowy organization. If Sook-hee gives Kwon’s group 10 years as a sleeper agent, she’ll be set free at the end of her service. Not really having a choice, Sook-hee agrees and is gifted with a new face, staged death and a fresh start. To her dismay, she quickly learns that the organization she now works for and where she came from both share a myriad of unsavory methods. Caught between the promise of a new life and her past, Sook-hee is forced fend for herself, never sure of who to trust and if she can ever truly escape who she was raised to be.

Villainess review Kim Ok-bin stillJeong’s latest carries lofty influences, pulling from Kill Bill, La Femme Nikita and even modern entries like Hardcore Henry. Rather than devolving into a checklist of what we’ve seen before, however, Jeong puts his personal stamp on things, balancing unhinged action with a dense character study slowly revealed through non-linear flashbacks. In essence, the film’s ferocity is matched only by its earned emotion. Just like Sook-hee, the story constantly morphs past expectation and perception, crafting a rich tapestry of characters marked by tormented pasts and desperation. In other words, Jeong knows when to let the bullets and arterial spray fly, but frames these devilish delights in a way that is poignant and ultimately heartbreaking. It’s this context that elevates an already brutal story, exploring the consequences of violence and the unfulfilling act of vengeance.

As for the action, it feels just as alive as the story’s characters, a beast with its own will that pummels indiscriminately. From the breakneck first massacre, which shifts from first-person POV to unhinged ballet of savagery, to the film’s mile-a-minute final showdown, there’s a ferocity here that’s rarely been seen before. There are only so many ways to film a gun battle, chase, or close quarter fight, but what Jeong does is give us an unparalleled view of his madness. The camera zooms and pans with the precision of a whip, hustling to catch each fatal blow while just barely staying out of harms way. Clever editing tricks seamlessly stitch multiple angles to feel like long takes that don’t stop to catch a breath. It all adds up to an experience that’s overwhelming in the best way, one that shows no mercy and doesn’t pull any punches.

Villainess review Kim Ok-binOn the performance front, is an ensemble who keeps things grounded emotionally. Making the film resonate, Kim Ok-bin’s Sook-hee is dazzling. This film is Sook-hee’s journey, and in turn, Kim renders her with genuine pain and torment, making her nuanced transformation something that is devastating in more ways than one. Kim is the film’s bloodthirsty wrecking ball, ready to tear apart foundations even as her motives reveal something more delicate beneath the surface. Playing opposite, Shin Ha-kyun’s Joon-sang is just as engrossing. Shin matches all of Kim’s pathos through a smaller, yet pivotal roll, one that really pays off. He’s a great contrast with sly overlap. Kim Seo-hyung’s Chief Kwon and Bang Sung-joon’s Hyun-soo round things out as agency liaison and unwitting love interest, each harboring hidden traits both in terms of performance and character.

The Villainess satisfies as both unrelenting spectacle and harrowing melodrama. Jeong walks a taut rope in every way from concept to execution. Watching the film, it feels as if Jeong has really found a way to reset the genre, going for broke and dragging us tooth and nail into the vice of a type of madness we can’t nor want to escape. The film also feels like a call of action of sorts, showing that chaos and style are only as satisfying as the meaning behind them, in this case an exploration into the ways we lie to ourselves in order to feel free. If you’re reading this review and have yet to hear much about the film, here’s my advice – put this thing on your radar, hunt it down, do whatever you have to, just see it.

SG