From the opening scene, The Villainess grabs the viewer by the throat and plunges them headlong into a bloody, ultraviolent world. Designed to resemble a first-person shooter, this bravura action sequence forces viewers to watch as a building full of gangsters gets sliced, diced, and blown away by an unseen, but obviously proficient assassin. While the subjective point-of-view has been attempted numerous times before, director Jung Byung-Gil (Confession of Murder) takes this familiar technique and puts a dazzling new spin on it—a philosophy that extends to much of the film itself.
Just as the video game aesthetic begins to tire, the film switches to an objective point-of-view and introduces our heroine—or villainess—Sook-Hee (Kim Ok-Bin). After obliterating an entire gang singlehandedly, she is arrested and shipped off to a secret government agency that transforms troubled young women into deadly sleeper agents. However, the requisite training montages come with an added degree of difficulty—Sook-Hee is pregnant. Using the child as a bargaining chip, the agency offers her a deal: do whatever we say for ten years, and then you and your baby can walk away scot-free. As dubious as the offer sounds, there really is no alternative.
After jumping through the agency’s hoops, Sook-Hee is seemingly given exactly what she was promised, but little does she know that her employers are watching her every move. A handsome agent named Hyun-Soo (Sung Joon) moves next door, and his official mission involves a weird, K-drama-style courtship. In this perverse game of pretend, will Hyun-Soo actually fall in love? Only people who’ve never seen a movie will be surprised at the answer.
The film also deploys a bevy of nonlinear flashbacks that help explain Sook-Hee’s initial killing spree. Without delving into heavy spoilers, it involves a murdered father (Park Chul-Min), a mysterious savior-turned-mentor-turned lover (Shin Ha-Kyun from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), and a tragic turn of events—all of which leads to a plot twist that isn’t so much surprising as it is inevitable.
That sense of inevitability—or, to be more accurate, predictability—carries over to other aspects of The Villainess, as it mines much of the same territory as Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2, La Femme Nikita, and pretty much every female-led Hong Kong martial arts film. And yet, somehow the filmmakers update these well-worn conventions in fresh and exciting ways. Much of this innovation comes in the form of the action. The director is a former stuntman (read his interview with Deidre Crimmins here), so it comes as no surprise that the film’s action sequences—coordinated by Kwon Gui-Duk—are jaw-droppingly impressive. The opening POV-warehouse fight is topped by a motorcycle chase involving katanas, which is then surpassed by a battle involving a pissed-off Sook-Hee, a stolen car, and a busload of fleeing gangsters. Despite an obvious reliance on shaky-cam and CG-enhancement to hide all the seams, there’s a definite showmanship on display here that makes the film an undeniable crowdpleaser.
While the action is certain to impress, the film would not work half as well without Kim Ok-Bin as our titular villainess. Perhaps best known for Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst, Kim delivers a multilayered performance, credibly playing an innocent naïf, a loving mother, a grieving widow, and an avenging angel hell-bent on revenge. Without an actress of her caliber anchoring this film, The Villainess would just be an orgy of violence—with no real stakes and thus no investment in either the characters or the action itself (see any Transformers film).
At its core,The Villainess is a Greek tragedy by way of South Korea, complete with chilling discoveries and stunning reversals, all drenched in a thick coat of dramatic irony apparent to any viewer even half paying attention. As with most tragic flaws, our heroine’s greatest strength is also her greatest weakness—a deep and abiding capacity for love. Love can blind us, and it can lead us to do terrible things. For Sook-Hee and those in her sphere, the consequences of her all-consuming love are catastrophic—but nonetheless exhilarating from the perspective of an action fan.