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The Villainess: Ambitious South Korean action romp

The Villainess is Byung-gil Jung’s gutsy venture with his ripening knack for eye-pleasing choreography, plus his fair take on melodrama and oft-irritating gimmicks.

Director Byung-gil Jung commences his latest action thriller The Villainess with a seven-minute take. With no clear narrative purpose, he puts viewers in this indulging POV shot, defined by hyperactive movements and South Korean blood-pumping hack-and-slash. As both the face of our female protagonist and her motivation for this carnage are unseen, we only know she is using various weapons to dispatch dozens of thugs in what seems to be their drug facility. Jung paused the sequence with a smash as the hidden cut, transitioning to the third-person perspective. We see Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim from Chan-wook Park’s Thirst) for the first time, before she finishes the rest of the thugs. In comparison with its imminent drama, the gore—several blood blobs splash on the screen—seems necessarily pompous.

This awe-inspiring butchery ends with cops closing in on her. Behind the blood-soaked face, Kim’s eyes speak for her character’s vulnerability and persistence. For the whole runtime, her stoic expression prepares us for an inevitable eruption of sorrow, anger, and denial of one’s own fragility. Though the actress isn’t physically impressive as Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, her technique with guns and swords sufficiently negates that lack of physical menace.

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Director Jung, a former stuntman, made himself known with the 2012 crime thriller Confession of Murder, which aggrandizes his frenetic action sequences—fun car chases and foot chases—next to riveting twists and less riveting turns that almost touch the prestige of Gone Girl. Now, action aficionados can trace overt inspirations back to La Femme Nikita, Kill Bill, and Bourne movies in Villainess’ tragic, melodramatic coming-of-age story. To add his personal touch, Jung throws in many long takes. They are diligently choreographed by Gui-duck Kwon, yet Jung films with jolting camerawork. The director favors match cuts to break the space-time continuity and darkened frames to hide cuts, similar to Hitchcock's Rope or Iñárritu's Birdman. A lot of close-ups, with characters fixed at the frame center, tell us these personalities are forthright in every word and gesture.

We soon find Jung’s directorial style a bit gimmicky, but the director counteracts this problem by staging admirably inventive set pieces: a sword fight on speeding motorbikes in a long tunnel and a claustrophobic, vicious upshot inside a bus. When Sook-hee, in her elegant wedding dress, snipes a familiar target from inside a bathroom—paying homage to Nikita, besides one kitchen scene—Villainess shows us its auspicious combination of action and drama, at least story-wise. About the structure, not so much.

South Korean thrillers often excel in underlying themes about societal preordination and psychological complication, and here, Jung awkwardly splices drama in between action scenes. The main arc is about Sook-hee's training in an intelligence agency. Her past is then pieced together in interactions with a person or a situation here and there through match cuts, forming two crossing storylines. After the opening, Sook-hee is captured and forced to work under the administration of The Agency for 10 years. That might sound like a Nikita rip-off if there weren't an instrumental character tipping the scale. When taken in, Sook-hee is already pregnant with the daughter of an unknown lover. The little girl anchors Sook-hee’s tender wish for a normal life.

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The Agency provides career training for their staff, and women seem to have only three choices: cook, stylist, or actress. Equipped with one of these professions, they rejoin society as sleeper agents for undercover jobs. The situation introduces Chief Kwon (Seo-hyung Kim), with her BlackBerry Q10, and two of Sook-hee’s colleagues; all will play their vital parts. Graduating as the best of her class, Sook-hee moves to a new home and waits for orders. Her daily job is a theater actress, and while juggling between two lives, she soon finds the missions agonizing and stressful. She also meets the love interest Hyun-soo (Joon Sung), assigned by The Agency to supervise her. Though he's living a second life, there are more to meet scrupulous eyes in this heartthrob. By letting viewers know his identity, the script solidifies the relationship because he develops affection for Sook-hee and her daughter from the beginning. Corny little details of romance suit a high school love story at best, but the situation, in which the benign and sincere Hyun-soo surpasses his misogynist colleagues, sells their relationship.

Though Sook-hee’s past is comprehensible, her memories take a long time to fully emerge. Her father was brutally murdered (audiences guess the killer from about 30 minutes into the movie) before Joong-sang (Ha-kyun Shin) took her under his tough wings and trained her to be the vengeful villainess she is. In time, reluctant violence and dreamy love suffuse Sook-hee. You will have an "Oh!" moment when her flashback clicks with the opening scene. Before we know, Joong-sang enters Sook-hee’s mess of a life again; his hefty footfalls resonate the agony of their forgettably unforgettable happiness. He gets in her way, which is already knotty and dilapidated.

Old flames die hard, but it still can. Sook-hee’s two smiles from the opening and ending reflect the excruciating significance of these events to her character arc. As the conflict of two different lives unfolds, excessive density for such a simple story is sometimes a burden to watch. Still, Villainess is Jung’s gutsy venture into fame with his ripening knack for eye-pleasing choreography, plus his fair take on Korean melodrama and oft-irritating technical gimmicks.