Have you ever seen a film that feels impossibly made?
Digitally stitched long-takes are no longer a novelty (filmmakers have spent the last decade trying to top Children of Men) and audiences are now more media savvy than ever before. The question therein: how do you perform a magic trick when all your spectators are in on the usual secrets? The answer ought to be obvious. It’s all about the showmanship, and Jung Byung-gil’s sophomore feature has it in spades. Whatever its narrative faults, there is quite simply nothing like The Villainess.
Opening in the vein of a first-person shooter, the film takes us through a labyrinthine action set-piece that not only feels like a video-game in its perspective, but in its staging. The wide-angle bordering on Fisheye exists not only to center the otherwise peripheral, but to capture the sheer magnitude of henchmen essentially spawning helter-skelter, emerging from every door and every dark corner as our yet-unseen heroine goes on a POV rampage with axes and firearms. She makes her way up and down the tiers of what appears to be a drug lab, mercilessly executing anyone in her vicinity as her breath grows more heavy and the screen more blood-spattered until finally, we’re tossed out of her headspace as she’s sent crashing face-first into a mirror, some five or seven minutes into this choreographed insanity.
And that’s when the action really begins.
Before our protagonist is given a face or a name, she’s taken out scores of men with what one can only assume is deadly purpose in not one, but two of the best action scenes you’ll see all year. The first’s FPS-like aesthetic is familiar. The second’s is something that feels cut from a different cloth. As soon as she’s recovered from the mirror strike, the camera swings around, above and below hand-to-hand combat, shaking wildly and with the sort of kinetic energy you’d expect from a Nat Geo leopard chase, only in close quarters. The disguised cuts are more than obvious (we swing back and forth between bodies so often it may as well have twelve cuts a minute), but it doesn’t matter. The hook here isn’t disguising the cuts but rather all that comes in between each edit, as is the case with every subsequent set-piece that equals the opening and then some. Here it’s a wildly disorienting in-and-out that replicates no human experience I can think of, but one that allows for each and every strike, block, turn and story beat to have Maximum Impact, as if the Emphasis! Were! On! Every! Single! Word! In! A! Melodious! Paean! To! Action! Cinema!
The events that led up to its firecracker opening are not only relegated to flashbacks, but form the backbone of our heroine Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) and how she came to be, but as soon as she’s finally given a face and a name, they’re snatched away from her. Whatever the context of this raucous opening, it’s merely a stepping stone to something greater as she’s immediately scooped up and trained by a South Korean intelligence agency – and by “scooped up and trained” I mean kidnapped and put through a series of bizarre tests of both physical and performative ability in a pseudo-highschool environment with her daughter’s future hanging in the balance. The Villainess isn’t just any old action movie, but rather one that transitions into a bizarre coming-of-age film underscored by the tropes and consequences of cinematic violence, before further transitioning into a proper domestic drama (also underscored by violence).
The institute where Sook-hee trains certainly focuses on guns and killing and all the assorted spy-necessities, but it’s also a full-blown educational convent for young women, with crucifixes on the dormitory walls and extra-curricular activities like cooking and theatre that one can partake in between sessions of staff-sparring and pistol re-assembly. It’s Sook-hee’s ground-up reeducation before she steps back out into the real world with a whole new identity (they pay for her plastic surgery, shaping her to look more “conventional”), and it even comes with the assorted high-school stock characters you’re sure to find the world over, from the bully to the poor outsider who each come into their own. As it’s revealed through flashbacks, Sook-hee’s childhood was robbed from her at an early age – her father was murdered before her very eyes, after which she was trained to be an assassin – so The Villainess essentially takes on the visage of a discernibly normal coming-of-age romantic tale, only it begins from the most abnormal place possible (especially for Korean society, given that she’s a single mother without any family to speak of).
Where the film opens quite literally in her point of view, she’s robbed of all her power by the time it hits its mid-point. As she re-enters the world an average woman living in an average apartment, acting in an average play in an average theatre (albeit a play that feels almost autobiographical as Soo-hee finds ways to express and contextualize her trauma), we the audience are now two steps ahead, waiting for her to find out the widower neighbor she has a cute-but-awkward romance with is another layer to the agency’s control over her. What’s unexpected though is how real this contractual romance ends up being for the both of them, making the plot’s unraveling all the more complex.
It’s shortly thereafter that the film’s narrative becomes too convoluted for its own good, placing Sook-hee in a position where she has to face a figure from her past. Kim Ok-bin certainly sells the anguish of being emotionally ripped apart in every direction (and by everyone) with incredible deftness, straddling a difficult line of both feigning normality and desperately coveting it despite the violence of her youth, but said past figure’s motivations and inhumane actions don’t feel emotionally sound, coming in the form of a major turn that feels without sufficient reason with regards to hurting Sook-hee. This part of the plot is explained in words, but it’s never quite felt. For a film so raw in its intent, this one deviation from its otherwise straightforward M.O. robs its climactic scenes of the kind of emotional and narrative clarity that could’ve propelled it to the halls of action greatness. Luckily, Sook-hee’s volatile reaction to those actions doesn’t need the same clarity. She’s been hurt regardless, and the individual scenes themselves deserve to adorn those halls. After becoming the kind of monster she always feared (rather early on in the film, in fact) Sook-hee engages in a katana-fight bike-chase (yes, you read that correctly) that feels plucked out of a fever dream, as the camera not only looks but feels like it’s going at hundreds of miles per hour.
It disguises the fight choreography not by cutting on impact, but by floating between the fighters, their swords, and even underneath their bike wheels, engaging with every strike and shifting loyalties rapidly depending on who’s in a momentary position of power. Gone is the feeling that any of this was rehearsed, and all that remains is the immediacy of each and every decision, each and every strike, and each and every spatter of blood, as if the film is creating itself anew every time the camera zeroes in on a new detail. It may be presented as one take, but it’s composed of all the individual shots you’re likely to find in a chase or fight scene, from shots that orient us to the chase’s directionality to the inserts of swords clashing and kicks connecting with sternums, only the intensity is maintained without fail as we move seamlessly from one to the next.
This is filmmaking craft at its absolute finest, and all the various tricks and techniques employed throughout the film coalesce into a stylistic masterpiece of a climactic battle that, despite its aforementioned lack of narrative clarity, proves to be a sort of meta-culmination regardless. Every shot, movement or disguised edit in the film stems from Sook-hee’s actions and the feelings that birth them, and like an emotional payoff to her having used them all individually throughout the story, the final chase/battle that begins with her steering a car with an axe while straddling its hood (before catapulting herself on to the back of a bus) weaves together all that Sook-hee has learned to do, all that the film has learned to show, and all that we have learned to expect.
The film’s various action aesthetics and displays of technical acumen culminate similarly to Sook-hee’s emotional climax, externalized through a riveting, high-speed fist-fight within the confines of a public bus surrounded by traffic on all sides. Sook-hee takes on not only the man who now embodies her anguish, but the environment itself as we veer inside, outside and atop the vehicle alongside her in yet another scene that would make logical sense were it entirely computer generated. It isn’t, since it involves real people performing real actions in a real environment regardless of the fact it was edited to look like a single shot. You can rationalize there having been some sleight of hand involved, but it ceases to matter when the result feels like real magic.
The Villainess may stumble on its way to emotional clarity – its tale of how monsters are molded within ordinary society takes a backseat to its fireworks – but it’s a cost that almost feels justified. Even its quieter, most dramatic scenes feel carved from precious minerals science is yet to discover, like something beamed to us from decades in the future at a time when film form has evolved to a point unrecognizable from that of 2017. As for the louder, more bombastic bits? It’s an unequivocal show-stopper, and its mere existence feels miraculous.