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Villainess, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Amazing action scenes and a story good enough to get to them."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Villainess" is a top-tier action movie that nearly gets strangled by a plot so full of new faces, shady organizations, and recurring motifs as to make a viewer start to wonder if writer/director Jung Byung-gil is trying to cover up for there really being relatively little going on. It makes who is fighting who and why such an abstraction that it can be tough to get invested in the outcome, but when things do finally click, the movie works as some crazy, amazing action spectacle.

It opens with a bang, tossing the viewer into the middle of a long-cut hallway fight shot from the first-person perspective of a furious woman. She basically destroys a major meth operation, the police have the place surrounded by the time she's done, and Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) is captured. With nothing of her old life left and pregnant besides, she's recruited by a top-secret organization to be a government assassin, told by Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) that she'll be free to live a normal life by the time daughter Eun-hye starts junior high. So, she is given a new-ish face and, after a couple years of training, a new life as actress Chae Yeon-soo, not aware that new neighbor and would-be boyfriend Hyun-soo (Sung Joon) is also her handler. Life is going about as well as it can given the circumstances, at least until the agency gets a lead on Choi Chun-min (Lee Seung-joo), who seems to have been rising up the criminal organization headed by Sook-hee's late teacher Joon-sang (Shin Ha-kyun) on the basis of a hard drive stolen the night of Sook-hee's rampage. That's the sort of thing that brings all the lies she's been told into the light, probably not great news for either organization that has contributed to making her an unstoppable killer.

That hallway fight is the middle of Sook-hee's story but the logical place to start things, but it makes for a flashback-heavy structure that is big on highlighting events that mirror each other and eventually highlighting the major events in Sook-hee's life from the time between gangsters killing her father to her arrest, but not so much on giving them a lot of texture or giving a shape to the agency and its goals. Lay out the relationship between Joon-sang and Sook-hee, and it's creepy, but director Jung never truly makes the audience feel that. On the other side, Jung doesn't show enough of Sook-hee's training and interaction with her fellow students to show why Kim-sun (Jo Eun-ji) is a rival and Min-joo (Son Min-ji) is a friend; they just pop up when needed later. Nothing really comes of the hard drive macguffin, and something really important is left frustratingly ambiguous for the finale.

But for all that the script is a mess, when you just stand back and watch the action, it is pretty damn amazing. The opening hallway fight is not the only time Jung goes for a first-person view but it's the longest sustained use of it, and it works better than it has most other times people have tried it, giving a real sense of the urgency and chaos one would feel in that type of fight. Not only that, but it pauses just long enough for the audience to applaud, and then has more. There is an amazing bike-and-knife chase, and the climactic fight on a moving bus is only surpassed by how the movie gets there. There are action beats in this movie that thrill not just because they are big and well-choreographed, but because they contain bits of things that seem genuinely new. It is probably a bit bloodier than an American version would be, not turning away from the carnage created by headshots and hatchet wounds.

And, eventually, the movie gets its hooks into you. Kim Ok-vin (whose name was spelled "Ok-bin" on previous films) is pretty great as the title character, a believable secret agent who carries a whole lot of trauma with style. Sook-hee has been messed up since childhood, but Kim is good at showing how this has left her strange but still a human being; the scenes of her taking her first steps into the real world, even if it's mostly a cover, are a nice look at just how she's not completely prepared for it. When the time comes for Sook-hee to be confronted by how much she's been betrayed and used, Kim nails the rage and hurt dead-on, tempered just enough by how she knows the world she lives in. I've got no idea how much of her own stuntwork she did, but she sells what can't be doubled, and does good work playing her character at a number of ages to boot.

Maybe the plot works a little better if you know Korean; maybe not. Either way, it's got some John Wick-level action, just eye-popping in how each move in a fight is fast and efficient but the whole thing plays out as grand spectacle, and you don't see that done nearly this well all too often.

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originally posted: 07/15/17 02:49:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Byung-gil Jung

Written by
  Byung-gil Jung
  Byeong-sik Jung

  Ok-bin Kim
  Seo-hyung Kim
  Ha-kyun Shin
  Jun Sung

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