THE VILLAINESS

PrintE-mail Written by Scott Clark

Like Ms. 45, Nikita, Haywire, and, more recently, Atomic Blonde, Byung-gil Jung's The Villainess, positions itself as a badass film about a vengeful female assassin/agent. Praise at Cannes and FrightFest had hopes high for a martial arts equivalent to those bombastic femsploitation flicks. It follows the story of Sook-Hee (Ok-bin Kim) a vengeful young woman taken in by a secret organisation only to be repurposed as a deadly spy.

First up, it's a great looking film full of superb locations. Those sets slide between lurid decaying environments and slick opulent locales drenched in John Wick-inspired neon colours. There's some images in here that feel instantly iconic and - understandably - make the poster, cinematographer Jung-hun Park imbibes The Villainess with a comic book style, fetishising action poses and power angles. But the film seems torn between a pulpy story about a femcentric spy organisation, a gritty revenge trip, and a dull melodrama.

It's the melodrama aspect that strains patience, deriding that high-octane energy in the second act with a dull compulsory romance. By the halfway mark it feels like we are miles from the disorientating world of an indoctrinating agency and the theatrical training compound they run. It even feels a far cry from the brutally unrelenting opening slaughter sequence.

Which explains why the film keeps dodging around in time, slipping bits and bobs in when it knows the pace is collapsing and the character work is becoming increasingly dry. The characters that are most interesting, Seo-hyeong Kim's Chief Kwon (the M of the agency) for instance, don't get as much attention as they should. The femsploitation angle is lost and becomes a kind of dull gangster love triangle affair. Albeit with some superb fights peppered throughout.

The camera work and editing are the film's worst enemies though. At first, that manic camera work serves first person action pretty well, especially in the opening Hardcore Henry-esque massacre. As the film goes on this becomes increasingly irritating. Not to mention just a little headache inducing. Again, the issue is not the action itself; it's the invasive, muddled presentation. Which is a real shame because the action itself is often balls-to-the-wall adrenaline-fuelled catharsis. Ok-bin Kim makes a badass heroine and the film is never more resplendent than when she's rolling out hyper-violence in speedy sword fights or break-neck gun-fu. All that with a consummate sense of style and a no-shit blood-drenched attitude from both director and cast, an attitude that drifts for a while but thankfully returns for the finale. In the end, The Villainess feels like a crammed origin story for something as opposed to a stand-alone. If that's the case, there's room for improvement on the foundation of something cool.

Whilst the facts of the plots are hard to follow and the fights over-shot, there's still fun to be had in the bombast and candour of it all. Not to mention those fights which survive the camerawork and reveal some brutally pristine choreography. Byung-gil Jung has ambition and talent, but over-working seems to at times obscure an otherwise enthralling caper.

THE VILLAINESS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JUNG BYUNG-GIL / SCREENPLAY: JUNG BYUNG-GIL, JUNG BYEONG-SIK / STARRING: KIM OK-BIN, SHIN HA-KYUN, SUNG JOON / RELEASE DATE: 15TH SEPTEMBER

Expected Rating: 8/10

Actual Rating:



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