THE VILLAINESS — Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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the villainess posterThe reputation of South Korean genre film has been growing exponentially as a force to be reckoned with. The Cannes Film Festival has proven a fertile space for the release of the best the country has on offer to Western markets, and following the success of Yeon-Sang-ho’s extraordinary zombie film Train to Busan in 2016, Cannes’ Midnight Screenings this year featured Jung Byung-gil’s high-octane female-centred action movie The Villainess. Starring Kim Ok-bin (most immediately recognisable from her performance in Park Chan-wook’s 2009 film Thirst), The Villainess by some accounts received a four-minute standing ovation when it screened at Cannes, fuelled no doubt as much by admiration for the film itself as it was a sheer biological necessity to release the film’s near-palpable, contagious energy. Continue reading…

The movie begins with the simple yet effective formal gimmick of being shot wholly from the first-person perspective of its as-yet unseen protagonist. If it wasn’t for the film’s gender-specific title and the slight feminine grunts heard as she slashes, kicks and pummels her way through a veritable army of clearly highly trained male thugs, there is little that would otherwise indicate that the one-sided massacre unfolding before us is the result of woman assassin. When her identity is finally revealed (significantly in a mirror: this is a film all about the instability of identity), she is notably far from sexualised: this is no stiletto-heeled, cat-suited vamp, but a physically skilled woman out to get the business done.

The villainess of the title is Sook-hee, a woman who witnessed an unseen killer murder her father when she was a child, and who dedicates her life to avenging his death. Captured by police after the film’s impressive opening bloodbath, she is forced into the service of an unnamed government agency who train promising women killers in their war against gang-related crime. Raising her daughter under the cold auspices of the training facility in which she is forced to live, Sook-hee is finally released to a life as an undercover agent, and waits for assignments. During this period, she finds a new love and confronts an old one, the truth surrounding both of these men forcing her to come to terms with just how great her propensity for violence is.

Critical considerations of The Villainess have tended to agree almost uniformly that the film’s strength is the breath-taking spectacle of its highly-choreographed action sequences that virtually explode off the screen. Less praise has been expended on the film’s inescapably convoluted plot, and while at moments the storyline admittedly verges on overstuffed melodrama, it is surprising how many English-language critics at least have casually overlooked the significance of Sook-hee’s status as a Chinese immigrant forced to work for the Korean government. While the film does not spend too much time constructing an explicit ideological position on this element, that Sook-hee’s Chinese heritage is repeatedly mentioned (she is even given plastic surgery when enlisted by the Korean government so she looks different) seems central in a film so much at its heart about the search for agency and identity in a world governed by male and – in the case of her deliberately gender-neutral woman supervisor Chief Kwon (played by Kim Seo-hyung) – masculine power and violence.

Politics aside, The Villainess is an action film that simultaneously echoes the spirit of 90s Asian action movies, the cinema of Park Chan-wook and even Euro crime-thriller classics like La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990), and yet feels profoundly contemporary in its unrelenting energy and aesthetic polish. With a lesser actor in the lead role, Sook-hee might fall into pastiche and parody, but Kim Ok-bin brings an earnestness and strength both psychological and physical to her performance, rendering what might otherwise be dismissed as cliché into something engrossing and captivating. It is she as much as Jung Byung-gil’s direction that makes The Villainess a spirited, dynamic and thoroughly enjoyable interrogation of female agency, identity and power through the often-untapped potential of action cinema’s defining codes and conventions.

France: 21 May 2017 (Cannes Film Festival)
South Korea: 8 June 2017
Taiwan: 16 June 2017
Hong Kong: 22 June 2017
Australia: 29 June 2017
Canada: 13 July 2017 (Fantasia Festival)
Singapore: 13 July 2017
USA: 16 July 2017 (New York Asian Film Festival)
South Korea: 17 July 2017 (BiFan – Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival)
UK: 27 August 2017 (Frightfest)

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).