“The Villainess” is probably one of the most exciting bad South Korean films of this year. While there are several first-class action sequences to be admired for heaps of efforts and techniques put into them, it is unfortunately stuck with third-rate plot and characterization, and this gap distracted me a lot during my viewing. To my disappointment, the movie is not bold or crazy enough to go all the way with its badass heroine, and it only gets worse as mired in a sappy, hackneyed melodrama which does not mix well with its gritty, ruthless action.
Evoking the merciless energy of “The Raid: Redemption” (2011), the opening action sequence of “The Villainess” is visually arresting and pulsating right from its first minute. Someone suddenly comes into a shabby building which turns out to be the headquarters of a big criminal organization, and then lots of goons are swiftly maimed or killed right in front of our eyes as the camera mostly sticks to the viewpoint of the intruder. Although this impressive long-take sequence sometimes feels like watching someone playing a violent video game, I must say that it also feels quite visceral and electrifying as the intruder relentlessly advances from one spot to another in the building, and there are a good number of amazing moments which will surely make you wonder how the hell they shot these moments. For example, when the intruder smashes into a window and then hangs on a rope in the air, the camera also hurls itself into the action along with the intruder, and it goes without saying that this is one of the most awesome moments in the film.
The intruder in question is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), a young Korean Chinese woman from Yenbian, China. After her father was killed when she was a little girl, she grew up to be a tough, ruthless killer under the guidance of a local gangster named Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), and this quality of hers draws the attention of a secret government agency not long after she is arrested by the police in the aftermath of her carnage. The agency is interested in her particular set of skills, so she is sent to a clandestine training place, and her handler Kwon-sook (Kim Seo-hyeong) promises to her that she will be free after working for the agency as a spy/assassin for 10 years. Sook-hee initially resists, but she comes to accept her circumstance because of an unexpected reason, and she soon finds herself going through her training period there along with other female trainees not so different from her.
Now many of you are probably reminded of “La Femme Nikita” (1990) and other similar films, and the movie gives us obligatory training scenes as required, though they are perfunctory at best and shallow at worst despite a few nice touches to amuse you. As a part of her training, Sook-hee learns acting at one point, and that leads to a brief moment which utilizes well the undeniable star presence of lead actress Kim Ok-bin, but other scenes do not add much to what was already established in the early scenes. While Sook-hee surely looks different in her more refined and sophisticated appearance around the end of the training, we do not get much sense of character development, and the supporting characters around her including Kwon-sook mostly remain one-dimensional without any discernable depth.
Anyway, the second act of the movie starts as Sook-hee begins her new life outside several years later. On her moving day, she comes across a guy living next to her apartment, and he seems to be interested in getting closer to her, but the guy is so awkward and clumsy that it would not be not much of spoiler to tell you that he is an agent assigned to monitoring her closely, even if the movie did not show you his identity in advance.
Sook-hee’s present relationship with that guy is juxtaposed with flashback scenes showing her past relationship with Joong-Sang, who is revealed to be more than a father figure to her. The screenplay by director Jeong Byeong-gil and his co-writer Jeong Byeong-sik tries to develop a melodramatic situation from that after a certain narrative turn, but it fails to engage us on the emotional level mainly due to its superficial characterization and heavy-handed plot. Kim is solid and believable in her physical performance, but her character is a rather bland cypher defined by a few characteristics, and Shin Ha-kyun and Seong Joon are woefully wasted in their mediocre roles.
As I felt more depressed by the jumbled narrative of the third act of the movie which does not make much sense, I came to appreciate more its technical prowess. I was thrilled by a long-take action sequence where our heroine busily fights with a trio of goons chasing after her while all of them are running rapidly on motorcycles. And I was also impressed by another long-take action sequence which culminates to a pulse-pounding climax unfolded inside a speeding vehicle.
However, I am reminded of better films out there. “La Femme Nikita” is still one of more memorable works in its genre territory, and I may revisit it someday for appreciating not only its striking action sequences but also its poignant emotional power. In case of “Coin Locker Girl” (2015), this small South Korean noir film did a better job of presenting tough, strong female characters, and that is why it is more engaging to watch than “The Villainess”. Although I did not like “The Raid: Redemption” and its sequel enough for recommendation, I sort of admired how they were willing to push envelop relentlessly, and they certainly made “The Villainess” rather tame in comparison.
While I gave “The Villainess” two stars mainly because of its poor storytelling, I guarantee you that you will not waste your ticket money if you just want to enjoy well-made action sequences. Sure, we all can agree that its stunt performers and technical crew members deserve praises for what they achieve here, but the movie did not succeed in engaging me in terms of story and character, and I only observed during its final scene that its heroine looks too sappy for its title.