FILM REVIEW: THE VILLAINESS (TORONTO AFTER DARK)
THE VILLAINESS (originally titled Ak-Nyeo) opens with one of the most badass fight scenes in recent memory. Seriously, the opening number (which feels like a single first-person shot) opens with such fire and fury that it’s almost nauseating. I mean that in the best of ways. Playing at this year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival, it brought to mind images of THE RAID, HARDCORE HENRY, and even OLDBOY. By the way, there are going to be film references aplenty in this review, as THE VILLAINESS clearly wears its influences on its sleeve. As far as influences go, THE VILLAINESS shares some very good company.
The stunning Korean film opens in a very flashy and hyper-stylized way, as a lone female assassin works her way through, what seems like hundreds, of henchmen. All of the action is seen from a first-person perspective as “we” are literally destroying a criminal enterprise person by person. It isn’t until one of the henchman goes to smash our assassin head first into a mirror, that we first get a glimpse of her face. At this point, the camera shifts to a third-person perspective as she then proceeds to kill everyone in the building. All of this mayhem leads us to the title screen, and seems to give us a promise of things to come. Unfortunately, the film gets into its own way a bit around the second act, and seems to be telling us two different stories.
The film is about the titular “villainess” as she goes from being an assassin…to being co-opted by a different group of assassins upon her capture. Through a series of alternate timelines and flashbacks, we are introduced to Sook-Hee (Ok-bin Kim), the assassin wreaking havoc in the opening scene. Fans of Korean cinema will undoubtedly remember her from several films, most notably for me was the superb vampire thriller THIRST. Through these flashbacks we learn that Sook-Hee is on a mission to avenge the ruthless murder of her father. There are a number of training montages, as well as other plot devices to show us the training she has endured throughout her life. The plot of the film actually resembles LA FEMME NIKITA so closely, I was wondering if Luc Besson was interested in pressing charges. In some ways it’s almost beat for beat. I suppose if you’ve got to copy an assassin film, you could do a heck of a lot worse. It just felt a little too close at times.
After Sook-Hee is co-opted by this opposing shadow organization, the folks in charge realize that her talents may be very useful to them. She is put through all sorts of additional training including both weapons as well as domesticity. Much of the training is practical assassin stuff, and some is just day-to-day banalities. Upon completion of her courses she is set free…or is she? She meets a nice man and makes an effort to start a normal life, until the agency comes calling.
This is where the film began to bog down for me. After this furious opening number, and a few other ancillary battle sequences, we are led to believe that we have entered a no-holds-barred action film. However, the film shifts tone and gets into a domestic drama that runs for nearly an hour or more. It’s simply the tale of two films. One being a destructive action film, the other being a slow character drama. I believe that this film could’ve been a tight 90-minute actioner, and I doubt anyone would’ve complained.
Pacing complaints aside, the film is gorgeous. Asian films, Korean in particular, have been putting out some of the most stunning visuals and fight scenes for some time now. Not to mention very compelling stories that often elevate the subject matter. THE VILLAINESS is not a horror film, but it is in the vein of some of the aforementioned action films that seem to transcend genre restraints. Films like THE RAID that are so hyper stylized and ultra-violent that they seem to hit the sweet spot for so many of us genre fans. THE VILLAINESS is slick and bloody, with enough cinematic moments to make your eyes bleed. It just fails to blend the action and the drama in a cohesive way for this reviewer. It’s still a super fun time, and well worth the watch. I even think a new bar has been raised in terms of fight choreography alone.
“THE VILLAINESS is slick and bloody, with enough cinematic moments to make your eyes bleed. ”