From Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman and Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde to Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant and Dafne Keen in Logan, 2017 has already proven to be the year of the kickass big-screen heroine.
Felling adversaries with both intensity and style, each of them has triumphed in infusing the traditionally male-oriented genre with a dose of enlivening anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better ferocity. More stunning still, however, is that this development has also corresponded with what might best be called Action Movie Escalation, a movement in which directors and stars strive to one-up competitors (and predecessors) in terms of one-against-many scenarios, complex choreography and punishing combat. It’s a trend epitomized by Atomic Blonde’s jaw-dropping stairwell throwdown, an ingeniously staged sequence of virtuosic violence which, among other things, firmly established Theron as cinema’s most ferocious female enforcer.
Or, at least, it seemed to, until The Villainess.
Having premiered at this May’s Cannes Film Festival, South Korean director Jung Byung-gil’s slaughterfest (in theaters August 25) rewrites the playbook for hyperkinetic carnage, even as it follows in the footsteps of its country’s most recent export hits. Like the films of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil), and Im Sang-soo (The Housemaid), The Villainess is a crimson-stained tale of fanatical revenge and volatile identity, and one that defines itself through set pieces designed to leave one gasping for air and cheering at the screen—or, if you’re of a more squeamish variety, covering your eyes from the geysers of blood spraying everywhere, including onto the camera’s lens. Supplying a series of no-holds-barred showstoppers that are tethered together by a plot that’s as canny as it is convoluted, it’s the type of byzantine, brutal work that feels destined to inspire a cult following.
The Villainess opens in astounding chaos, with a shot of a hallway from a mysterious character’s POV, à la a first-person video game. A man appears, and so too do the hands of the person whose perspective we’re sharing—holding firearms. Gunshots begin ringing out with blazing speed as more and more adversaries appear, the camera whipping back and forth as our protagonist rampages through the identical men—all in black suits and white shirts—pouring into the narrow passageway, aiming to kill. Before long, those pistols have been replaced by titanic swords, used to slice and stab with startling ruthlessness, all as the camera slides through the legs of one man, dodges an axe thrown by another, runs up stairs and through doors, and pounces on opponents. The line of corpses grows longer and longer in the rearview, until finally the mayhem culminates in a gym full of even more goons, and we see—when the camera is smashed into a wall mirror—that our proxy is, in fact, a lithe young woman.
At that moment, The Villainess ditches its Hardcore Henry-style aesthetic gimmick—and its CGI-enhanced conceit of being a single, unedited take—to gaze at its center of attention, who finishes her massacre by leaping out a window (using a cord that’s strangling her final enemy) and being arrested, a twisted grin on her blood-splattered face. Her name is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), and after a bit of mandated plastic surgery that gives her a new face, she’s informed by Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) that she’s now part of a shadowy intelligence agency that trains women to be assassins. The deal she’s tendered is that, after ten years of duty (and some lessons in cooking and applying makeup), she’ll be granted freedom. That offer, plus the fact that Sook-hee is pregnant, is enough to get her to reluctantly agree. However, Kim’s stoic face belies a burning independence, and as we already know, she’s far from a woman easily tamed.
Jung and Jung Byeong-sik’s script moves at breakneck speed that leaves no time for exposition, the result being that it’s often difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on until a few minutes after a given event has transpired. One often feels as if they’re hanging on for dear life to keep up with The Villainess’ narrative, which is in tune with its blistering centerpieces, and is complicated by Jung’s regular cuts to disorienting flashbacks. Those prior passages reveal, in fragmented fashion, that as a child, Sook-hee watched from under her bed as her father was murdered by his best friend over a valuable item. Then, after being sold into sexual slavery by that fiend, she was rescued and trained to be a lethal predator by dashing killer Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun). Sook-hee and Joong-sang fell in love and married, but in her quest to avenge her father’s murder, Joong-sang was killed, sending Sook-hee on a mission of destruction that culminated in the film’s maiden bloodbath.
Things don’t get much more lucid from there, with revelations mounting as the tale’s various pieces (including a sweet romance with Bang Sung-jun’s agent) slowly come together. Throughout, The Villainess proves deeply indebted to the work of Park Chan-wook, be it the vicious intro (which plays like a steroidal variation on Oldboy’s hammer hallway sequence), the story’s commingling of love, revenge and mania, or its fascination with mutating identity (not to mention that Kim Ok-vin starred in the director’s Thirst). The material persistently raises issues of rebirth, of life as an act of performance art (replete with some Shakespeare stage turns!), and of the unattainability of a “normal life,” even as the filmmaker never loses sight of the fact that none of that stuff matters if his action isn’t reliably compelling.
After Sook-hee’s initial butchery, the question arises as to how The Villainess can possibly top itself during the remainder of its two-hour runtime. The answer comes soon enough, first with a breathless motorcycle showdown on the highways of Seoul (in which Jung’s camera zooms over, around, and underneath its two-wheeled vehicles as combatants take up arms against each other), and then with a finale that leaps, literally, from a driverless car to a villain-packed speeding bus. How director Jung accomplishes his reality-defying cinematographic feats is anyone’s guess. Yet the experience of being in the thick of such gonzo pandemonium—sometimes looking out Sook-hee’s eyes, sometimes flying around her like some over-caffeinated ghost—is gleefully thrilling.
When it comes to pure, unadulterated cinematic dynamism, The Villainess has few rivals. And the fact that it’s delivered in a distinctly feminist package, led by a Kim performance of bruised-and-battered intensity, only further proves that today’s beat-’em-up arena is now the dominion of women.
Consider the action-movie escalation bar raised.