Destined to be known as “the one with the three-way motorcycle swordfight” — or, perhaps, “the one with the single-take, first-person massacre” — Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess is a film of major action jolts tempered by diminishing narrative returns. Redeeming a dumb or incoherent plot with exciting fights is not a new strategy in genre cinema, of course, but Jung clearly means for this intricately structured story of a female assassin’s bloody, tragic journey to resonate emotionally. Unfortunately, despite this ambition, he can’t keep his movie from slipping into tediu — Oh, shit! What did she just do to that guy’s neck?
Put another way: Don’t worry if you get confused or bored; something new and startlingly gruesome will happen soon enough.
The Villainess opens with that first-person-point-of-view melée, and it is electrifying. Our protagonist, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), wildly shoots and slashes and stabs her way through corridors filled with anonymous goons. The frantic, handheld camera, combined with the geysers of arterial spray and the flailing of falling bodies, achieves a kineticism bordering on abstraction.
Sook-hee is then captured by a secret wing of the Korean Intelligence Agency and compelled to become a government assassin, in exchange for eventually getting her life back. With a new name, a new face (thanks to some amazing plastic surgery), and a young daughter, she’s released into the world, whereupon she promptly meets handsome widower-next-door Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun), who secretly works for the same agency and has been ordered to keep tabs on her.
Along the way, we get flashbacks to Sook-hee’s former life: the murder of her jewel-thief father, her enslavement by his killer, her salvation by a dashing young gangster (Shin Ha-kyun) who turns the girl into a killing machine and then marries her. (There are more than a few shades of Luc Besson’s classic La Femme Nikita here, and Jung makes sure to reference one of that film’s more memorable scenes, when Sook-hee must interrupt a romantic moment by going into a bathroom, assembling a sniper rifle and taking a shot at her assigned target.) It’s a relatively predictable backstory, but director Jung cuts into it in unpredictable ways, thus keeping things interesting — for a while.
Some good thematic notions get some play. Learning to be undercover super-assassins, Sook-hee and the other female trainees are taught to dance and dress and act and cook and do their makeup — domesticity and femininity as roles to be played. And the idea that everything we do in life requires that we play a part offers grounding for the which-way-is-up narrative chaos of the movie’s later scenes. If everything’s an act, then nobody is to be trusted, ever, with anything. But there’s only so much duplicity that one movie can handle, and the double-crosses here pile so high that it’s hard to care what happens to anybody.
Ultimately, Jung’s superb control over his action scenes doesn’t quite extend to his ability to move us, or even to handle his increasingly complicated story. Clutter overwhelms character, and even as the film ratchets up the cruelty, our emotional engagement erodes. We do eventually get one final, astounding set piece — involving a driverless car, a bus, and, like, a lot of blood — but it’s one to be admired more for its technique than for its power. Something similar could be said for the movie. The Villainess is entertaining enough, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we should be caring more for this character as the film goes on, not less.
Directed by Jun Byung-gil
Well Go USA Entertainment
Opens Aug. 25th, IFC Center