2017 has been a watershed year for Korean cinema; Park Chan-Wook, Kim Jee-Woon, and Joon Ho-Bong returned with the latter directing one of the largest budgets for any Netflix original. Beyond that upper echelon, Jang Hoon’s [a] Taxi Driver garnered plenty of Western acclaim. UK distributors too got involved with this renewed interest in Eureka releasing the Tiger with Choi Min-Sik and are looking to do the same with his gangster epic, the New World. Lastly cult aficionados Arrow Video finally engage with Korean cinema by releasing the acclaimed action film, the Villainess by Confession of Murder director Jung Byung-Gil.
Irrespective of genre, few films could ever possibly hope to announce their arrival with as much bolshiness as Byung-Gil does in his third film. Take the infamous hammer scene from Old Boy and spread that across the entirety of a building and now place the camera at a POV perspective of Kim Ok-bin who decimates countless men with a body count that makes that scene from the first Kill Bill look delicate. Stabbing and slashing in every conceivable direction, this is one of the best action in many a year – there’s another equally good one at the end of the film too. The point of view, action camera stylised, perspective stops when Ok-Bin is finally caught and her head bounced off a mirror. Some have compared this scene to Hardcore Henry, but unlike that deeply ostentatious and disorientating film, Byung-gil knows when to use this ‘gimmick’ and when not to.
Thrown from a window after Sook-hee (Ok-Bin) has literally killed everyone, she is caught by the police. That is 7 minutes into the film and from there on in the baton is passed over to character and story development; so rattling is that opening salvo of freneticism, a break is nigh on essential making this drastic change in tone welcoming. Seeing the potential that literally landed in their hands, the police hand Sook-Hee over to a secretive agency who reprogram women into sleeper agents to carry out hits on high-profile targets. Pregnant and thought dead by her peers, she goes through the system hoping to get to return to a normal life. Falling for Jun Sung (Hyun-soo), she gets what she has wanted all of her life that is until the house of cards that is her new life starts falling apart when ghosts from her past start reappearing – it is an action movie, after all.
The Villainess and 2010’s Man from Nowhere work together as great companion pieces, both are about people who try to escape the bleak horror of their own personal history through new relationships and children – if anything, though, Kim Ok-Bin’s character has it a lot worse than Won Bin did. She has her dad murdered in front of her, being sold into sex slavery and being molded into an assassin. There is nothing wholly original about a character trying to escape their violent past, there is also a degree of the women in prison DNA coursing through the genetic makeup of the Villainess. Like any modern action film, interest is born from execution and here that comes from editor Heo Sun-mi.
The aforementioned POV cinematography presents an inescapable total violence that is broken only when the head we are observing events through is smashed into a dance studios mirror – that alone is the work of a bravura editor. Unlike the western ideal of action cinema, the villainess doesn’t anemically put all of its best work in the action scenes – Sun-mi Heo is consistent throughout. The point of which one scene ends and another begins is seamless in an overblown stylistic blowout way unique to Korean cinema. Like Nicole Kidman’s hair transitioning into Wheat in Stoker, here there are countless such examples and while each one is showy and flamboyant it’s a show I was happy to be privy too. One scene has a jump off a bridge to escape the underlings of a target segue into a flashback, again using that POV cinematography as the bridge between the two.
Whether it is the new wave or this post-wave boom, Korean cinema is showy and quite often it doesn’t earn flamboyancy. The dramatic intentions of Byung-gil’s film are trad in their generic makeup dressed in flowing cinematography, thoughtful if over-elaborate editing and a cast full of big performances. Kim Ok-Bin is outstanding turning from a silent killing machine to a woman with nothing to lose via a contented Mother, likewise, New Wave stalwart Shin Ha-Kyun appears as the quietly maniacal antagonist. Let’s be honest, though, this is a simple action film and for such a film to look this good, be so well acted, give us a compelling reason to care whilst also containing two of the most balls to wall intense scenes of the year makes the Villainness another one to chalk into the win column – now whether or not the action cam mount is a disorientating mess or not is another matter altogether.