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The Villainess (2017) directed by Byung-gil Jung

A lady with potential

Ok-bin Kim plays Sook-hee, a young woman who is apprehended by a mysterious agency after going on a rampage and slaughtering an entire criminal gang. This agency, led by Chief Kwon (Seo-hyeong Kim), see the potential in training her up to carry out assassination contracts on their behalf, so they hold her in confinement in order to train her.

When she initially attempts to escape she is shot and injured by an agent who pretends to be a co-escapee. Afterwards, Chief Kwon tells her that if she refuses to cooperate with the training she will be shot. When Sook-hee admits that she is fully prepared to be killed, Kwon reveals that she is pregnant - and that if she dies the baby in her womb will die too. As a result, Sook-hee remains in training - learning a wide variety of skills from sword combat to stage acting - while raising her little girl.

A sleeping assassin… or an agent of vengeance?

Some years later, she is finally released into the world with a brand new identity (her old self is officially dead) and assigned to live as a “sleeper” agent in an apartment block with her daughter. When she arrives she is immediately accosted by a young man named Hyun-soo (Jun Sung), who comes rather strongly onto her. What she doesn’t know is that she is another agent who has been sent to keep an eye on her.

However, as she goes around undertaking various missions, a figure from her violent past resurfaces in her crosshairs. She finds her convictions torn between the profession imposed upon her and the need to complete a quest to avenge the brutal murder of her own father.

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Another South Korean gem?

The Villainess begins a truly grandiose and eye-openingly ultra-violent fashion during a lengthy shot taking place from the POV of its central character à la the film Hardcore Henry and first-person shoot ‘em up video games. She frantically rushes around corridors and stairwells, taking out one hoodlum after another with guns and knives. It’s a dizzying, exhilarating piece of cinema.

However, unlike Hardcore Henry, the film doesn’t sustain this gimmick throughout. Indeed, while there are occasional similarly audacious moments of action throughout (the one-take bike chase and bus ambush sequences are rushes which have to be experienced to be believed) it slows down to tell a detailed story and let us get to know the numerous characters.

The Villainess's audacious bike chase

Complexity for complexity’s sake?

There are quite a few flashbacks throughout the film which reveal details of Sook-hee’s past. The proceedings never get dull and they do help us to care about the characters. There are some incidental details which help to flesh out their world interestingly, one particularly notable one being the fact that the characters learn theatre as part of the training. It’s something that feels natural in the context of the fact that impersonating other people comes with the territory in their profession. and also pays off in terms of the story arc later on.

However, the proceedings can occasionally get a bit confusing. While it’s understandable that the writers would want to add a few plot details to a film that’s otherwise rather reminiscent of the Luc Besson film La Femme Nikita, some of the twists do feel a bit like they have been thrown in for the sake of “hey, we should have some twists here”.

On the other hand, The Villainess’s twisting style and startling variations in pacing and tone - veering from gangster epic to romantic drama - are pretty par for the course for South Korea’s style of cinema, as are its melodramatic character moments, constantly whirling camerawork and rich visual colour schemes. It’s a style which has given the country’s cinematic output such a fervent cult following in the West. This one might not be the finest example of it (Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden is arguably the best of the recent bunch) but it’s still great epic action entertainment.

Runtime: 129 mins

Dir: Byung-gil Jung

Script: Byeong-sik Jung, Byung-gil Jung

Starring: Ok-bin Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, Jun Sung, Seo-hyeong Kim, Eun-ji Jo, Ye-Ji Min

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

Where is it showing in Edinburgh?

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