The Korean New Wave exploded onto the international film scene 15 years ago, more than enough time for a generational shift. Now, as the likes of Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook take their places as masters of cinema, Jung Byung-gil is one of a new crop of Korean directors emulating the ultra-violent, operatic genre films innovated by Park and Bong’s generation. Jung’s first movie, the serial-killer thriller Confession Of Murder, debuted in 2012, and now he’s getting into the much beloved, frequently repeated female-assassin sub-genre with The Villainess. Like Jung’s earlier effort, The Villainess can trace its lineage to another Korean New Wave classic, Park’s 2005 film Lady Vengeance. But while those two films share an obsession with the intersection between femininity and violence, Jung’s directorial style pulls from a more eclectic—and derivative—palette of influences than Park’s.
Kim Ok-vin, probably best known in the West for her role in Park’s Thirst, goes through the wringer as Sook-hee, a talented killer in the Lady Snowblood mode who first comes to the attention of the authorities when she single-handedly mows down an entire gang. This scene of indiscriminate slaughter opens the film, and is shot in the same shaky first-person POV as last year’s Hardcore Henry, but with a twist: When an anonymous henchman smashes the attacker’s head into a mirror, we see a woman’s face in the reflection. Jung frequently defaults to Sook-hee’s POV throughout the film, never for this long, but always with a certain empathy. (He also seems determined to bring back the novelty wipe as a legitimate editing technique.)
Sook-hee is immediately arrested and taken to prison, where she’s recruited for a top-secret government program of John Wick-esque complexity. Serve as a covert assassin for 10 years, pantsuit-clad Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) tells Sook-hee, and she’ll be free to live the rest of her life as an ordinary citizen. Oh, and she’s pregnant. Surprise! The scene revealing Sook-hee’s new home in a surreal boot camp/finishing school is just as over-the-top as the reveal of the character herself, showing a bloody, dazed Kim brandishing a knife as she stumbles through boldly lit, impeccably staged classrooms where future assassins learn feminine skills like cooking, ballet, and acting. It’s a striking sequence, boldly confirming director Jung’s commitment to aesthetic excess in every aspect of the film.
But while the image of a bride in her wedding gown aiming a sniper rifle that graces the screen an hour in is certainly striking, Jung is too in love with his images to worry about how they fit together. The Villainess’ plot is just as convoluted as its aggressively stylized camerawork, jumping back and forth between Sook-hee’s childhood, young adulthood, and the present as it reveals her violent backstory one flashback at a time. Raised to kill by her father—whose murder she witnesses in a scene strikingly similar to O-Ren Ishii’s origin story in Kill Bill: Volume 1—Sook-hee’s quest to avenge his death eventually lands her in the arms of gangster Joong-sang (Shin Ha-Kyun), who inspires Sook-hee’s killing spree when he turns up dead, too.
This is all laid out in the first 45 minutes or so of the film, which then settles into a sweet romance between Sook-hee and her neighbor Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun). Sook-hee and her young daughter have left the assassin academy and moved into a generic apartment block under assumed names, rendering her promise to place her complete trust in her new beau more than a little hollow. Sook-hee’s not the only one with a secret, though, all part of a complicated web of lies that dramatically unravels in the last third of the film. The cast is game for all of it, tackling each ridiculous new twist with straight-faced gusto.
Ping-ponging from gonzo action to domestic drama to spy thriller and culminating in an electrifying showdown aboard a speeding bus, The Villainess delivers all the overstuffed thrills we’ve come to expect from Korean action cinema. But it also strains under the weight of those expectations, re-telling a familiar story (strip away all the flourishes, and this is yet another La Femme Nikita riff) with loads of enthusiasm, but without much in the way of innovation.