Fantasia 2017 – ‘THE VILLAINESS’
Warning: You are not prepared for what this movie delivers. I watched The Villainess about a week after I saw Atomic Blonde — which was also part of Fantasia 2017 — and the two have a lot of similarities. On the surface level alone, they’re both about awesome, extremely dangerous women who are working for a shadowy organization, and both movies contain lengthy, seemingly one-take action sequences which are the highlight of the film. In fact, The Villainess has three of those action sequences. But the similarities pretty much end there as Atomic Blonde’s Cold War espionage is more akin to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, whereas The Villainess shares a lot of DNA (including one identical scene) with La Femme Nikita. So while Luc Besson was off making a bloated, sci-fi epic, Byung-gil Jung (Confession of Murder) was reworking the flick that put him on the map in the first place. Some tweaks are for the worse, but most for the better.
Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim) was trained as an assassin from a young age following the death of her father figure who trained her. Swearing vengeance, she takes down a major crew she believes responsible. She is arrested on the scene, and ends up under the arm of an organization led by Chief Kwon (Seo-hyeong Kim) who train/employ elite, female killers who are enlisted to work for 10 years before earning their freedom. Sook-hee has some secrets in addition to her skills and her self-appointed mission, including a young daughter. The organization has some secrets of their own in the form of Hyun-soo (Jun Sung) as an agent assigned to get close to Sook-hee. After discovering that her past and the group she works for are connected, events transpire that will send Sook-hee into on an insane rampage. Hell hath no fury.
The story relies on flashbacks to flesh out exactly what brought Sook-hee to the melee that starts the film, and how the sect she works for ties into that past. The results are…scattered. One of the problems I had were the subtitles being incorrect/literal translations and finding it difficult to follow exactly what was going on in the past. This may have been most of the issues with the storytelling that I had, but it was a major dent. Do note, the copy I was watching was not the final theatrical/retail version, and I’m sure this will be fixed in time for wide release. One thing I certainly wasn’t confused with: Ok-bin Kim. She has an unmistakable presence and a gaze that you can’t stop staring at. Kim is gorgeous, and she’s equally impressive at emoting as she is with her physical prowess. I was also rather impressed with the cold, stoic, strong Seo-hyeong Kim as the questionable boss behind the assassination organization.
Some confusing story beats aside, The Villainess is one of the greatest action films in the past 10 years. Byung-gil Jung has joined the ranks of the Korean greats who have emerged in the past 15 years, as someone who is willing to push the boundaries of what action direction should be. The 7-minute opening scene sets the stage for some crazy, elaborate action moments unlike you’ve ever seen. The camera moves in absolutely impossible ways, weaving through and around objects to effortlessly convert from a first-person view to a third, spinning around and changing levels, all while delivering a fight sequence where the choreography is somehow easy to follow. That choreography is bloody as hell and vicious, by the way. Mind boggling continues later with a highly stylized action sequence on motorcycles and a finale that takes place on a moving bus. It’s almost too much to comprehend if you think about it at the time, and you shouldn’t on your first viewing (I watched the intro five times). In fact, there is as much choreography to the camera movement as there is to the fighting itself. First time cinematographer Jung-hun Park has made a giant first impact. If you are given the chance to see it on the big screen, do so without hesitation. The Villainess flat out fucking rocks.
Good news! In addition to playing this year’s Fantasia Festival, The Villainess will be given a limited theatrical release on August 25th from the good people at Well Go USA! Go get your vengeance on!
Incredible action, delivered with some truly unique, mind boggling technique, and with a great lead performance.
Subtitle issues, some difficulty following the story through the interweaving flashbacks.