TL;DR – Some of the most fascinating actions sequences I have ever seen, sandwiched between one of the dullest stories I have ever watched. I don’t think I have reviewed a film with such extremes in quality before, it was both fascinating and disappointing all at once.
Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars
Wow, I don’t think I have ever come across a film like The Villainess before that had the ability to both deeply interest me and also deeply bore me all in the same film. In a story of two halves, you have some of the most fascinating action sequences I have ever seen put to film, and in the other half a spy revenge tale that was just a slog to get through. On the one hand, having such a discrepancy is interesting to talk about, but also it was really frustrating because you could see such potential squandered so badly.
So to set the scene, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is arrested after carving her vengeance all the way through an entire building full of people. When she wakes up she is not dead or in jail, instead, she is in a weird hospital, which we soon find is a cover for a covert section of South Korea’s Intelligence Agency run by Kwon-sook (Kim Seo-hyung). Here she is offered a deal, train and work for them for ten years, and she will gain her freedom and her criminal record will be wiped from the record, if she lives that long. So you have a school full of assassins, undercover assignments, hit squads going on missions, these are all narrative beats that I can get behind. Unfortunately, the story just doesn’t work, but we will get to that in a moment because first I want to talk about the action.
The Action in The Villainess is some of the most fascinating action sequences that I have seen all year, in fact maybe in some of the most interesting I have seen in quite a while. Let’s take, for example, the first fight of the film, indeed, our first introduction into the world and characters. We begin with a very interesting perspective, as we see most of the fight in the first person. This is one of those action sequences where it is also difficult to work out where to begin, so let’s begin with the camerawork. Now I have to say it was quite a bold move to start your film with a seven-minute single long take filmed mostly from the first-person perspective. This is first used to hide what was about to happen because you think it is just a slow push in on a hallway when a hand holding a gun appears on the screen and then the scene takes off. Now I saw this film on DVD and it didn’t have any behind the scenes features so I am at a loss to work out how they filmed this scene. Did they have a camera attached to someone as they did their stunts, did they have the hands and legs added in postproduction, or was there digital assistance to get some of those shots and camera moves. I think I might be a bit of all of the above, but the thought of being a fly on the wall when that was filmed really interests me. Add to this, the ingenious way they transitioned from first to the third person, by ramming our protagonist headfirst into a mirror. Now clearly this and the other action scenes are not one continuous shot and if you look you can see where they made the cuts, but that does not take away from what is some amazing choreography.
Indeed, you see this again in the motorcycle chase that happens about a third of the way through the film. This starts as a brawl in the house and then escalates to a motorbike chase across the streets of Seoul. Here they use a lot of quick cuts but follows the Mad Max Fury Road (see review) trick of always keep the action in the centre. This is all feeling quite standard, something we have seen before and then as the bikes come whooshing down the tunnel, then the camera picks up off the ground and follows at high speed without missing a beat. ‘Ok, that was interesting’ I thought, and then watched as the camera chases up to the lead bike being driven by our protagonist now called Chae Yeon-soo. As it approached you could see the other bikes get out of the way for the camera, as you would expect, but then the camera swept under the wheels of the bike, does a 180-degree spin and then zooms back in as Chae Yeon-soo fights off two enemies wielding swords. The camera pushes in and out of the fight as it happens around it which must have been a very difficult scene to film safely. These are such amazing moments that make you sit back and think through the 84 films I reviewed this year and none of them have challenged me to work out how a scene was filmed like The Villainess did. The issue is that not everything else in the film worked as well.
So we are going to start talking a bit about the story here so just a warning that there may be some [SPOILERS] here if you have not seen the film. So look I am going to preface this section from the start by saying I am not Korean, so there is a big chance that a lot of the cultural subtleties of the story was lost on me because I don’t have that kind of cultural knowledge. I want to make this clear because I did not care for the story at all. The story went from a slow build to a drag on the film, to a bore, and then at some point, I honestly found myself just not caring about any of the characters. The film jumps all around the place with tone, going from deadly serious to slapstick comedy in a heartbeat. It is a film about deep cover spies, the best assassins in the world and it has time to stop and be a bitchy high school-esk drama, which completely undercuts the characters and the story. All of this culminates in a scene that I am sure was meant to be emotionally devastating, but looked so fake and over the top that it really was ridiculous. Now I am an easy lay when it comes to emotional impact in films, goodness I have a whole category for that, but I felt nothing but relief for the dead characters because I knew this would mean that the end game would start soon and the film will be over soon. Add to this we are never given any context as too who these people are that they are killing and generally unlikable characters, and you just get a woefully disappointing mess.
In the end, do we recommend The Villainess? Well yes and no. If you are a fan of cinema and how it is made, especially action cinema, then yes you will want to watch this over and over again to see the detail in the fight scenes, how the camera gets into position, the flow and stylistic choices, where the hidden cuts are. If you are not a fan of that, well then I don’t think I can recommend it that much, unfortunately. I don’t think I have reviewed a film with such extremes in quality before, it was both fascinating and disappointing all at once.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Villainess
Directed by – Jung Byung-gil
Written by – Jung Byung-gil & Jung Byeong-sik
Music by – Koo Ja-wan
Cinematography by – Park Jung-hun
Edited by – Heo Sun-mi
Starring – Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung, Jo Eun-ji, Lee Seung-joo, Son Min-ji, Park Chul-min & Kim Yeon-woo
Rating – Australia: R18+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 18; New Zealand: R16; United Kingdom: 18; United States: Not Rated