There’s a plot turn late in The Villainess that’s guaranteed to leave you thinking two things in order — first, hey that’s ridiculous, and second, I really should have expected this exact story turn from a Korean film. It’s a distraction of sorts, but happily it’s one that pales beside the sheer kinetic beauty of the film’s action sequences and its star, Kim Ok-bin (Thirst).
The film opens with a first-person POV assault on a gangster’s hangout that pairs technical wizardry with graphic violence while ramping up the excitement and wide-eyed wonder. The carnage ends (along with the POV) with the arrest of a blood-drenched young woman named Sook-hee (Kim), but her time in custody is short-lived as a government agency snatches her up with plans on putting her intense fighting skills to deadly use. The deal traps her into a ten-year contract, but as she heads out into the field competing interests from both her past and her present begin pulling her anger and devotion in varied directions.
We move back and forth in time from the event that first triggers her vengeful feelings as a child to a doomed romance that once again sees her seeking revenge to her present predicament that tests her loyalty and rage in violent ways. Back against the wall, she unleashes hell on everyone who gets in her way.
Director/co-writer Jung Byung-gil is no stranger to asking viewers to accept over the top story beats — watch the excellent Confession of Murder which he scripted for some glorious examples — and as mentioned above The Villainess does that in spades with its third act. There’s some convoluted nuttiness unspooling between the beat-downs as Sook-hee’s interactions with family, friends, and strangers alike play havoc with her emotions. Ludicrous is a word that will come to mind, but it will be thought with a smile as the film’s action choreography / cinematography leave you satisfied like few others.
The opening sequence packs wildly exciting and crafty camerawork into ten adrenaline-fueled minutes that deliver more fun than the entirety of (the all POV) Hardcore Henry, and the visual marvels continue throughout. Gun play, car action, and terrifically brutal fight scenes — typically enhanced by bladed weapons — paint the screen black and blue and red. One extended fight/chase on motorcycles sees Jung and cinematographer Park Jung-hun move the camera with fluid grace in and out of a sword fight traveling at high speeds.
Later goofiness aside, the story riffs pretty directly on the likes of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita as a female criminal is trained to be an assassin before earning a false freedom out into the world. Certain turns are clear early on, but Kim’s performance locks us into Sook-hee’s situation despite our familiarity with the narrative. It’s easily the most memorable thing she’s done since Park Chan-wook’s underrated Thirst, and she convinces as both an ass-kicker and a woman pushed to her emotional limits. She crosses thresholds male action stars are rarely asked to visit regarding relationships and emotional trauma, and you buy the pain she endures even if you prefer the pain she dishes out. The story leans heavy into melodrama at times, but Kim and the action keep it from ever wallowing in the wah-wah.
The Villainess is already one of the year’s best action films, and while it lacks the streamlined simplicity of similar recent gems like John Wick and The Raid it never comes at the expense of the thrills. Seek it out and enjoy this woman’s fury.