THE VILLAINESS: Boundary-Pushing South Korean Action Cinema

Easily Among the Best Action Films of 2017 [An Already Great Year For Action]

Coming out swinging from the opening frames, writer/director Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess pistol-starts with a breathtaking first person action sequence that puts Hardcore Henry to shame, then proceeds to top itself repeatedly, landing the film a spot in the annals of action cinema history without missing a beat. As this is a Korean film, the drama is dark and The Villainess is not the feel-good film of 2017. But while the action might not be as breezy as something like the awesome-but-silly Jailbreak from Cambodia this year, it’s hard hitting, executed thrillingly, and pushes the boundaries of what action cinema can be even in a post-The Raid-society.

Our Titular Villainess is Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim in a star-making, seemingly life-risking performance), a tragic figure whose entire life has been lived beyond her control as she’s formed into an assassin from a very young age by various agencies after her father was brutally murdered before her very eyes. The story hops around in time from Sook-hee’s innocent childhood to her early days training with a mysterious group of killers and then her “final form” as a trained government agent in a shadowy group that sends her on kill missions. Oh, and at some point in there she becomes a mother to a wonderful little daughter. Keep in mind… this is a Korean movie.

So the drama and character work is just savage enough to make The Villainess feel patently Korean, but that’s only part of what makes this movie so special. Truly, this is action filmmaking on such a level as to elevate the art. The aforementioned first-person scene is an attention grabber par excellance. We don’t know the context or characters at all, so it’s a perfect spot to place a flashy and stylistic set piece. We never return to that perspective again, but the boundary-pushing continues on. There’s just enough mystery and suspense doled out between action set pieces thanks to the solid, time-hopping script (from Jung and co-writer Byeong-sik Jung) so that you are kept off balance. And then soon Sook-hee ends up on a high speed motorcycle chase / sword fight after she performs a government assassination that is so stylish and breathtaking it’s really hard to comprehend how the filmmaking team pulled it off. Never looking cheesy, this high speed sword fight might be the most iconic sequence in the film… although the hit she later attempts while dressed in her own wedding gown is also pretty visually striking. Culminating in an action sequence set aboard a speeding bus where the camera seems to magically move in ways it should not be able to, there’s just an unending barrage of badass, thrilling, and visually creative action sequences that set the film above the competition.

Another overarching theme found within The Villainess that is absent from most action cinema is the clear depiction of the challenges of life as a woman. While this is clearly genre fare designed to thrill and excite, the audience is deeply invested in the journey of Sook-hee because she is a real human being who is saddled with a rough lot in life. But it’s not just Sook-hee. The agency she is a part of, filled with lethal trained assassins, are all women. They’re monitored constantly, their freedom dangled before them as a reward for service now. Where The Villainess is in many ways a classic revenge thriller, it’s also a desperate attempt to reclaim some kind of freedom or agency in our main character’s life. The fights of The Villainess represent a modern woman with all the skills and talents to thrive in this world wrestling control of her life back from those who have taken it from her, however tragically that might all play out. So while you are scooping your jaw up off the floor after each truly revelatory action set piece, you’re also rooting for a female protagonist that feels achingly timely right now as professional women across many different industries are speaking out and working towards a reclamation of the workplace as a safe environment for all genders and orientations. This is a case of the right movie at the right time pushing the boundaries of action filmmaking and having something relevant to say along with each slain foe.

While Jung’s previous film Confession Of Murder was an enjoyable thriller that I’ve mostly forgotten, The Villainess harkens his arrival as a filmmaker who absolutely must be watched closely. The same goes for star Ok-bin Kim, who appears to have risked life and limb to reinvent herself as an on-screen badass for the ages. The Villainess feels fresh, invigorating, and absolutely ranks among the very best that action cinema has to offer in 2017.

The Package

Featuring some brief EPK-style featurettes, this release is not necessarily packed to the gills. That said, those brief behind the scenes pieces do give some insight into how the action scenes were captured. It’s illuminating and heightens the magic for someone like me, whose mind is sent whirling during the film itself wondering how certain shots or moments were captured on film. On top of the bonus features, the Blu-ray presentation of the film looks as slick and stylish as one would hope. There’s very little to complain about from a visual perspective. I guess The Villainess could easily show up on Netflix or some other streaming service at some point, and it’ll be just as awesome there as here on Blu-ray. BUT, this is a title I feel excited to have discovered; I am extremely pleased to own this title for myself. The Villainess comes with the highest recommendation for action fans.

And I’m Out.

The Villainess hits home video November 21st, 2017 from Well Go USA.

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