South Korean genre cinema has been building up a reputation for itself, from violent thrillers like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy to full-on action like last year’s zombie-tastic Train to Busan. And now, mashing together both of those styles, we have The Villainess, which was a hit on the festival circuit not too long ago; after a very brief cinema release, it now comes to DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow.
The film opens with a breathtaking sequence in which Kim Ok-bin’s Sook-hee takes revenge on the men who killed her father; despite there being a hell of a lot of them, she dispatches all with ease. That is, until things go south and she finds herself under the captivity of a government-sponsored assassin program, recruited as a professional killer. They set her and her newborn daughter up with a new life as a cover story, even including a dummy husband; but this can’t last, and soon Sook-hee uncovers new revelations about her past that make it difficult to know who to trust.
That’s the simple summary of the plot; there’s actually a whole load of twists, and it’s not always easy to follow everything going on, especially given that there’s a lot of jumping around in time early on. And, despite the complexity of the plot, there’s not a lot of depth – it’s silly and superficial, and largely an excuse for the action.
But what action! You can see why it impressed festivalgoers; every fight scene is jaw-droppingly fast and frantic, with Sook-hee a femme fatale for the ages. Particularly remarkable is Park Jung-hun’s cinematography, the camera dancing around scenes as if editing doesn’t exist and it all has to be captured right now. During a shootout on a speeding bus, the camera flies out a front window, spins around the vehicle, and smashes in through a rear one, all while the poor sods are being thrown over the benches by our enraged heroine. Camera nerds will wonder how it’s all done; others will just gaze in astonishment.
There is an awkward section in the middle when the action slows down in favour of melodrama and relationship comedy, which can feel either like welcome relief or an annoying distraction; we do get the feeling that something was lost in the translation of Sook-hee’s new husband’s dialogue into subtitles, making him seem less like a bumbling charmer and more like a bit of a creep.
This package is sadly light on extras, with only an audio commentary and a trailer; we’d have loved some more behind the scenes insight into how the action was put together. If you’re quick, though, and pick up a first pressing Blu-ray, you’ll also get an illustrated booklet with new writing from Anton Bitel.
THE VILLAINESS / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: JUNG BYUNG-GIL / SCREENPLAY: JUNG BYUNG-GIL, JUNG SIK-BYEONG / STARRING: KIM OK-BIN, SHIN HA-KYUN, BANG SUNG-JUN / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 30TH