28th Aug2017

Frightfest 2017: ‘The Villainess’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Ok-bin Kim, Seo-hyung Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, Jun Sung Bang | Written and Directed by Byung-gil Jung


Sook-Hee is a trained assassin who was born to kill. She was just a little girl when the training started in China. And after the death of her mentor, when the chance of starting a new life was given to her, she came to South Korea as a government agent. The National Intelligence Service promised her freedom after ten years of active assignments. So begins her new double life as a theatre actress-come-hit-woman until the dark secrets from her past start to reappear. Then she gets a new mission and it changes everything.

There’s been a lot of hype for The Villainess, ever since it first screened at Cannes; and as an action-movie fan and genre fan I was all ready to buy into that hype. But I should have known better! To quote the words of Public Enemy… Don’t believe the hype.

The Villainess is a overwrought tale of a put-upon woman marked by some interesting stylistic directorial choices and frenetic action that is ultimately let down by its own visual flare and a central character that has no backbone. In fact Sook-hee is so mentally meek, so pathetic, that it’s not until the VERY end of the movie that she makes any kind of choice for herself. Instead she is subservient to all those in her life: from her first husband to her “fake” husband and everyone inbetween. And despite the physical strengths she displays, her emotional strength is for nought – and as such it’s hard to empathise with the character in the slightest.

I will say that for the most part, The Villainess at least looks interesting. Byung-gil Jung disregards any of the normal conventions of filmmaking, breaking not only the 180 degree rule but the eyeline rule AND any sort of typical filmic spacial awareness. All of which makes the film look very different to other examples of the genre; and for the most part if works to create an almost otherworldly look to the action – almost as is Sook-hee is some kind of supernatural “superhero”. However come the latter half of the film and all of Byung-gil Jung’s visual techniques blur into a heady mess of shaky-cam visual incoherence.

Of the action, the opening sequence sets a standard for the film which the rest of The Villainess can’t match. Shot POV-style, from the perspective of Sook-hee, the fights here are brutal, bloody and quick; and kudos to Byung-gil Jung for finding a clever and interesting way to change perspective without interupting the action. The rest of The Villainess is little more than a series of cool-looking set-pieces and interesting action/fight ideas interspersed with your typical overblown Korean drama – with a middle act that drags the film into an uninteresting mundanity.

A disappointing and worse, dull, take on the revenge thriller, The Villianess screened at Frightfest on Sunday August 27th.

** 2/5


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