Opening with an unbroken 10 minute action sequence that doesn't so much take your breath away as suck the oxygen out of the room, and climaxing with a swordfight-on-a-motorbike chase that almost tops it, the dazzling action in Korean revenge thriller The Villainess is quite the calling card for director Jung Byung-gil, and will no doubt have Hollywood knocking any day now. Though the muddled melodrama that dominates the mid-section may give them pause for thought.
That opening – set in a grimy building that recalls Oldboy (opens in new tab)'s famed hammer fight – is filmed almost entirely in Hardcore Henry-style first person, as an unidentified protagonist (or is it an antagonist?) uses firearms, swords, doors and anything in arm’s reach to shoot, slice and smash their way through scores of suited goons. There's no context for the bloodbath. We don’t even know whose body we’re temporarily a passenger in, only that when it comes to murder, they are a prodigy.
The kinetic photography is both thrillingly intimate and bewilderingly frantic, eschewing the current trend for single-shot, in-camera fight choreography (see: The Raid (opens in new tab), John Wick (opens in new tab)) in favour of chaotic shaky cam that, though disorientating, proves thrillingly intimate. Rather than rapid editing, cuts are masked by transitions between rooms or quick pans that don’t entirely cover the joins but create the illusion of one relentless take. It’s eye-wateringly violent, blood spilling by the gallon, and culminates with an end level boss fight in a gym filled with shirtless muscle. It’s during this encounter that the camera snaps out of first person and we finally get a glimpse at the Villainous instigator of this viscera-soaked assault – Sook-hee (Thirst (opens in new tab)’s Ok-bin Kim), a woman whose psychotic rictus grin and indomitable determination more than makes up for what she lacks in stature. It’s bravura stuff.
The fight ends with Sook-hee tossed in jail and pulled from the pit by the Korean Intelligence Agency. It’s here that the film slams on the brakes, mutating into a pale imitation of Luc Besson’s Nikita as Sook-hee trains to be a hired killer for the government before being sent out into the world, completing hits as and when her icy handler Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) tells her. Byung-gil also devotes a significant amount of time to Sook-hee’s backstory through a series of poorly signposted flashbacks, throws a child into the mix (Sook-hee gives birth during her training) and adds an unnecessary romance between Sook-hee and her seemingly sweet neighbour Hyun-soo (Sung-Jun) who is, of course, an undercover handler.
This is the meat of the film, occupying the vast majority of its two hour runtime and, for the most part, it’s painfully tedious. There’s sound logic behind the structure – it emphasises character development and, after watching Sook-hee do her thing in the opening seconds, you spend the rest of the film itching for her to explode again, like staring at a coiled snake for two hours. But the balance of soap opera silliness to pulse pounding fisticuffs is way off, just a brief bout of balletic brutality in a geisha house to tide you over around the halfway mark. Kim does the lion’s share of the groundwork to keep this unengaging mid-section at least watchable, as she’s called on to be mother, starlet and assassin, but she, like the film, only excels when it turns to action.
It ends with a bang, however, a freeway chase that almost makes up for the agonising wait offering a cunningly cathartic release after two hours of build up. But with a few more exhilaratingly original scraps The Villainess could have been truly special.