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Film Review: ‘The Villainess’

Variety logo Variety 7/2/2017 Maggie Lee

Channeling “La femme Nikita,” “Kill Bill,” Nikkatsu’s ’70s female exploitation films and a gazillion Hong Kong martial arts heroines, “The Villainess” nonetheless succeeds in being one-of-a-kind for its delirious action choreography and overall narrative dementia. Writer-director Jung Byung-gil indulges in all the excesses of South Korean screen violence, punishing his avenging angel played by Kim Ok-vin as much as she does her foes, the cumulative effect of which is a brain-melting daze for the audience.

Although the film premiered in the midnight section of the Cannes film festival and promptly sold U.S. rights to Well Go USA, sales company Contents Panda may find it hard to generate as much critical and commercial buzz as they did for “Train to Busan” when it bowed in the same section last year. Still, “The Villainess” is a must-have for genre and fantastic fests.

The opening sequence, which serves up seven minutes of nonstop carnage from a subjective POV, should be branded on viewers’ memory. All one can see are swarms of gangsters being hacked, stabbed, punched, kicked — their incomprehension of their own sudden, violent deaths giving the effect of blackly comic slapstick. Like “The Raid,” there’s an unabashed lack of plot, motive or meaning for the sake of pure adrenaline rush. Still, unlike the action in that relatively elegant Indonesian fight movie, action choreographer Kwon Gui-duck seems to get high from just spraying blood — jet streams of it — all over the place.

Sook-hee (Kim), the one dishing out the damage, remains mysteriously unseen until the moment she leaps to almost certain death, only to wake up with bonus plastic surgery and the chance to live a new life, without paying for the trail of mangled corpses she’s left behind. Of course, there’s a Faustian deal in the mix: She must work as an assassin for the government’s secret service for 10 years before she can walk free.

Those familiar with Luc Besson’s “Nikita” will recognize the film’s premise, the only main deviation being that Sook-hee gives birth to a daughter while in custody, which ups the stakes but also paves the way for soppy melodrama. There’s also a variation on the romantic arc. Like Nikita, Sook-hee also dates a regular neighborhood guy, except he’s actually an undercover agent Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun) sent to keep tabs on her. Since it’s something the audience knows from the start while she’s kept in the dark, it whips up intrigue and fluffy charm reminiscent of rival-spies movie “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” It’s clear that before long, both start to prefer their roles as an ordinary nuclear family to their true identities.

However, as Sook-hee’s past begins to catch up with her, potentially jeopardizing her assignments, her backstory is divulged in fragments that confuse more than elucidate why she went on the rampage at the outset. It boils down to the trauma caused by the two men who influenced the protagonist most in her early life: her father and Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), the mafia boss who brought her up to be a deadly killer as well as his lover.

The screenplay by Jung and co-writer Jung Byung-sik muddles their self-explanatory connections with dense plotting and digressions, including a vendetta with a Chinese-Korean gang. Editor Heo Sung-mee’s technique is flashy, and his fast, edgy cutting gives action scenes great dynamism, but the same technique doesn’t work when applied to dramatic exposition. For example, he undermines the suspense by repeatedly revisiting a scene in which Sook-her as a girl witnessed horrific violence, since it was obvious from the first flashback who the culprit was.

The film might be more enjoyable if the largely improbable plot served only as a functional cue for action set pieces, which are madly kinetic. But Kim seems to be carried away with drawing out the love-hate, life-and-death relationship between Sook-hee and her old flame, which becomes more lurid without gaining in originality. It doesn’t take a Tarantino buff to notice how the story and characterization are derivative of the “Kill Bill” films And the heroine is put through the emotional wringer in ways that are more sadistic and misogynistic than Uma Thurman’s character endured there.

With her striking features and petite figure, Kim exudes a subtle eroticism which proved electrifying in such racy, artsily twisted works as Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst.” But for a role that requires rich emotional heft, she lacks the physical stature of Korean divas like Bae Doo-na or the range and refinement of Jeon Do-yeon. She does display great exuberance in combat, a fighting bull charging at matadors with all her might, although being required to wear heavy makeup half the time limits the performance. As her mysterious and masterful lover, rough and growling Shin hardly convinces as one who can steal a woman’s heart.

As in his last film, the serial-killer action-thriller “Confession of Murder,” vehicle and highway mayhem play a significant part, as Gui stages a midnight motorbike chase and a stunt atop a speeding bus with jaw-dropping abandon.

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