Monday, August 21, 2017

The Villainess: Kim Ok-vin Vanquishes All Pretenders

Sook-hee is a lot like La Femme Nikita, but she lends herself more readily to Freudian analysis. Gangster Joon-sang became both her father figure and fiancĂ©, so when a rival gang killed him, she decided to wipe them out, with no regard for her own life. Of course, when Sook-hee, now working for a shadowy assassination agency, discovers Joon-sang is still alive and most likely betrayed her, you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to guess how she might react. The body-count is truly awe-inspiring in Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

After learning of Joon-sang’s supposed death, Sook-hee launches a frontal assault on the gang that allegedly did it. Think of this sequence as the hallway scene from Oldboy, raised to the power of one hundred, but initially seen through Sook-hee’s POV, a la Hardcore Henry. However, Jung uses a cleverly transition to pop back to a standard omniscient viewer perspective about halfway through the opening carnage.

Sook-hee never expected to live through her super-charged vengeance-taking, but her conspicuous skills catch the eye of Chief Kwon, who oversees a double-secret counter-terror and organized crime agency. Basically, they are a death squad, but whatever. If Sook-hee gives them ten years of service, she can reclaim her life. It won’t be such a bad deal. She will assume the identity of aspiring actress Chae Yeon-soo and she will be able to maintain custody of the daughter she didn’t know she was pregnant with.

Unbeknownst to the reinvented Chae/Sook-hee, her new neighbor is also her handler Hyun-soo, who is deliberately worming his way into her life and confidence. However, he legitimately falls for her and duly adores her daughter too. Then one fine day, Chae is ordered to assassinate a target that turns out to be Joon-sang. Chaos ensues.

Granted, there is a bit of slack in the middle of Villainess, but it is hard to judge it harshly when the extended, relentlessly pedal-to-metal action sequences at the beginning and end are so spectacularly cinematic. Jung started in the business as a stuntman, so he has always had an affinity for action, but he takes it to a new level of artistry in Villainess. It is the sort of film you will want to re-watch with a clicker to try to keep track of the escalating death toll.

This summer, Hollywood has been congratulating itself for casting women in action roles, but they are rather late to the party, considering how long martial arts superstars like Cheng Pei-pei, Angela Mao Ying, Kara Hui, and Michelle Yeoh have thrown down in Hong Kong productions. Nice try studio guys, but as Sook-hee, Kim Ok-vin blows away all the phonies, pretenders, and Johnny-come-latelies. She is a trained martial artist, so she has the chops, but she also has Eastwood levels of steely intensity. When she shares the screen with Shin Ha-kyun’s charismatically manipulative and villainous (so to speak) Joon-sang, all bets are off. Yet, for elegant ruthlessness, it is tough to beat Kim Seo-hyung’s deliciously imperious Chief Kwon.

The Villainess is an action film that delivers over and over again and then some more. As soon as you have seen the first half-hour, you will think of Sook-hee as an action icon. The brutally cathartic fight scenes should firmly establish Jung as a modern master, but he gets a key assist from cinematographer Park Jung-hun, whose work is by turns evocatively noir or wildly frenetic. When it comes to women action protags, Kim Ok-vin can’t be beat. Very highly recommended, The Villainess opens this Friday (8/25) in New York, at the IFC Center.