If you think a motorcycle chase through a tunnel in which the drivers attack each other with samurai swords sounds fantastic, then The Villainess is for you. The action is astounding and nonstop for the first third of the film, while the middle section settles in for character development, a bit of light romantic comedy, and a pause for breath before diving down into more first-rate action and stunt work.
Director Jung Byung-gil kicks things off with a 10-minute, one-hundred-victims killing spree as an assassin moves through a building, mercilessly snuffing everyone out. Of course, they all came at the killer with knives drawn, so it’s not like they were remotely innocent, although it’s not quite clear what evil they were up to, but it doesn’t really matter since it’s just the set-up. All this is done through point of view shots, which is impressive but wearying. Then the camera turns, and we find out the killer is a woman.
After decimating everyone, the cops arrive, and she gets dropped off at a training center for spies and assassins (like she needs any more help in the latter department). We discover her name is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) and that she is with child. At the spy center, which is run by a no-nonsense, seemingly-emotionless woman named Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung), Sook-hee is offered a 10-year contract to act as a sleeper spy, after which she gets a pension and complete freedom. The alternative? That’s not so good, and so Sook-hee agrees, and her training begins.
Settling into her sleeper-cell life, she gets married, takes care of her kid, and occasionally knocks someone off, which usually results in some spectacular chase sequence. For a world-class assassin, she does a lot of damage and is certainly deadly, but not quite silent.
The problem is that when Sook-hee is dropped back into the real world, her past catches up with her. Here director Jung has a little more than just slam-bang action on his mind. The film whips backwards and forwards in time, revealing how the protagonist has been manipulated by most of the men in her life, all of whom are ruthless, including her father. She is introduced to violence at a young age, is subsequently steeped in it, and no matter how she tries to live a normal life, she is expected to observe and enact violence at every turn. Such seems to be the fate of young girls here: on three separate occasions, they are witness to devastating carnage, which seems highly exploitative after a while.
Most people will see The Villainess for the action and stunt work, and here Jung does not disappoint. The film is a smorgasbord of violence, featuring gunfights, hand-to-hand combat, explosions, car chases, fights between people hanging in the air on telephone wires, etc., all meticulously and thrillingly executed.
My personal favorites come near the end: Sook-hee with an axe fighting 20 people in a bus that is careening down the highway and a much more intimate battle with knives between her and the main villain (who will remain unnamed). This is where fight choreography and storytelling meet seamlessly, as the fighting is an extension of the pair’s relationship, the back-and-forth mirroring their feelings for each other. With all the Sturm und Drang involved with this film, it’s this particular moment where The Villainess truly soars.