The Villainess goes through a lot in her two hours of screen time. She goes through a lot in her first five minutes. By the opening scene’s end a few dozen men lie dead or maimed at her hand. It’s as though the audience has been dropped into the climactic endpoint of an action-revenge saga — which is precisely what it is — but as one story ends another begins and we’re along for the ride.
The craft of action on film has progressed a great deal in recent years. The Protector had a camera operator follow Tony Jaa through five stories of unbroken mayhem and The Raid and The Raid 2 showed off inventive execution of physical camera moves by director Gareth Evans and team. Outside Asia there has been quality action experimentation in the b-movie action scene, such as the Undisputed series featuring Scott Adkins, while the more up-market John Wick and its sequel both prized clear shooting of tightly choreographed gunplay and grappling. Even TV has raised the bar, with both seasons of the Daredevil Netflix series sporting a standout single-take fight.
Even with all this eye-popping action candy to ingest, The Villainess feels fresh, expanding boundaries way outside the square. That opening scene kicks proceedings off with a bang in a video gamey POV shot. These shots have been done in film before. Notably, Doom (2005) riffed on its source game’s perspective with a first person shooter sequence and recently Hardcore Henry (2015) riffed on video games as a whole, carrying the viewpoint through an entire feature. However, this is far from the only visual trick The Villainess has in its storehouse. Midway through the carnage, the camera is thrown out of the character’s head and the scene seamlessly continues, with the camera now snaking around and through the action. It’s a stunning way to open the movie.
Further action scenes display similar flair. With the first person view made familiar in the opening minutes, snippets from this angle are smoothly cut into later scenes. Long takes appear a few more times, but they are mixed up with other techniques. There’s a sword fight typical of another strain of action shooting, all fast edits and chaotic framing, quickly followed by a rip-roaring motorbike sword-fight chase that drops in another spinning, sweeping single camera move as the combatants scream through a tunnel.
It’s all so smoothly done, it’s difficult to ascertain how it was put together. The camera operator is basically another stunt performer playing a part in the action, ensuring that even when things are getting seriously wild, real human performances are the focus. Director Jung Byung-gil is a stuntman himself, which goes some way to explaining the co-ordination required. With the camera swinging around there’s surely some hidden edits tucked away in there and some moments would have been impossible without digital trickery, but even in slow motion it’s hard to tell. Only one brief moment where the camera glides under a moving vehicle looks obviously CG. For the most part, the effect achieved feels like being there as opposed to watching a film, yet still being able to see what’s happening without getting lost. By the film’s end all the techniques are being used together for a display that’s practically symphonic in the intricacy of its moving parts — and topped off with the best use of a bus since Police Story.
All this may make the action sound constant, which is not the case — it’s just what grabs the mind (with a chokehold) when recalling the film. The action is supported by a promising story that serves the central character well, even though it combines numerous clichés. That astonishing opening demands explanation, which eventually arrives, but first we walk a while in the shoes of Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) as she is arrested and wakes up in a disorienting facility. A secretive government agency training program sees her already substantial skills sharpened further still, before she is released as an undercover agent with the promise of freedom after ten years of service.
The setting and story contained therein are intriguing, yet the overarching machinations of criminal gangs and government agencies are murky to the point of obscuring the plot rather than leaving the audience in suspense. Flashbacks reveal more of Sook-hee’s traumatic past and relationships with first her father and later a rescuer (Shin Ha-kyun) of uncertain intentions, but these are not presented chronologically, so keeping track of who’s who, who’s currently good or bad and whose head has been violently reshaped gets tricky to track.
There’s also a heavy dose of melodrama — unsurprising given this is a Korean movie. This pulls the pace back, while at least driving some solid emotional stakes into the story, giving Sook-hee a glimpse of an average life so foreign to her, but clearly desired. She has a flat, a job and her neighbour Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun), with his goofy grin and caring demeanour, could be ideal romance potential, but we already know it’s not that simple. Sook-hee’s life, and the film, begins to unravel in a manner which while surprising, takes the story down a convoluted path that robs the visually amazing climax of narrative clarity. Importantly though, Sook-hee’s rampage is understandable as both she and we are aware of how much she has been manipulated. If she is a villainess, it’s because the tragedy of her circumstances doesn’t allow her to be anything else.
The film would fall flat without a strong performance in the title role and Kim Ok-bin clears the hurdle, shouldering action and drama with equal deftness. She has to play all over the emotional spectrum, both real and feigned and manages everything equally well. Sook-hee’s one real-world skill is acting, which adds another layer to the character as she channels and processes her experiences through her roles on stage. With such a harrowing story from front to back, it’s unsurprising Sook-hee is such a violent whirlwind when the action breaks out, but even then there’s variation, from coldly robotic to anguished desperation. It’s also a good move to have her nearly always fighting with a weapon, which lessens the disadvantage of her small build and slight stature.
While the tropes are as plentiful as the action camera angles, the overriding tone of The Villainess is, as the opening suggests, one of pitiless antagonism. Daytime is grey and washed out, while night is striking and dangerous. It’s a dark, bleak world — pretty much all faces shown on screen for more than a passing moment belong to people of shadowy intent. Normal lives are repeatedly mentioned, but feel like they belong to a parallel reality. It’s a wonder Sook-hee is functioning at all.
So, if you can stomach the arterial blood sprays and downbeat disposition, while committing enough thought to navigate the maze of character motivations, The Villainess is likely to leave you slack-jawed at the audacity of it all. If a 3D version of this film exists, I would not watch it. My head would probably explode.