The Villainess tells a story about Sook-Hee (Kim Ok-Bin), who is trained as an assassin since childhood under the guidance of her mentor and husband, Joong-Sang (Shin Ha-Kyun). When her mentor died, she is given a second chance to start a new life as a government assassin working for South Korea’s intelligence agency. However, it doesn’t take long before her dark past catches up with her.
When The Villainess made its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the South Korean action thriller was famously greeted with a four-minute standing ovation. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. The opening seven-minute action set-piece alone is a technical triumph of virtuoso camerawork and dazzling action choreography. Shot mostly in a POV style reminiscent of a first-person video game, we get to witness the unseen protagonist (Kim Ok-Bin) fights and slashes her way through a swarm of armed assailants from one setting to another. And amazingly enough, the particular sequence was brilliantly shot and stitched seamlessly together to look like a continuous long take.
Then, there are subsequent action sequences such as the inventively-staged sword fight during a nighttime motorcycle chase and another single-take moment involving a speeding car and a bus towards the end. Although they don’t quite match the brilliance of the aforementioned opening sequence, director Jung Byung-Gil still deserves the credit for pushing the boundaries of South Korean action cinema.
Now, if only the rest of the movie is as engaging as the action sequences, The Villainess would have been a certified action classic. Unfortunately, Jung Byung-Gil and Jung Byeong-Sik’s screenplay is needlessly convoluted and often drag in places. The frequent use of flashbacks over the course of its 129-minute running time, which tends to be confusing, definitely requires your attention since they often appear all of the sudden.
The story, which copies everything from Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita to Hong Kong’s female-oriented action genre of the yesteryear, cranks up its melodramatic approach way too much. The characters, in the meantime, are disappointingly superficial. Sure, Kim Ok-Bin (2009’s Thirst) looks great playing a physically-demanding performance as Sook-Hee. But she lacks emotional depth to make her character worth rooting for.