Clear drawn inspirations. The plot of The Villainess has elements that work and elements that don’t. The general storyline calls to mind the obvious influences of films like Le Femme Nikita, Leon the Professional, and Kill Bill, while many of the characters band connective plot-tissue are underwhelming. The central character is fleshed out just enough for the audience to root for her through all her trials and tribulations, and it’s always great to see a badass female in an action role. The assassin mentor played by Ha-Kyun Shin, and the intelligence chief played by Seo-Hyeong Kim are by far the most interesting characters and provide the two strongest performances of the film while many of the supporting characters feel lacking in depth and at times in performance. Side characters come and go without leaving much of an impression which is especially troubling given the substantial screen time given to minor characters.
The story is a means to an end. The plot follows a non-linear structure full of flashbacks, both to earlier points in the film and to events before the film began, and the story is full of twists and turns, face-altering plastic surgery and double-crossing, leagues of assassins and secret agencies; the narrative is complicated to the point where it can become outright confusing at times. While the central goals of each main character are clear, the point-by-point plot of the movie often lacks clarity. Aside from the melodramatic sidetracking, which doesn’t consume too much screen time, the story serves as a decent enough means to progress from one jaw-dropping action set-piece to the next.
Incredible action sequences. The Villainess pulls no punches when it comes to the action. Right from the opening action sequence shot in 1st person, The Villainess is sure to grab hold of any action junkies. The choreography is stellar all the way through and the film displays great variety to the mayhem. The Villainess mixes up the action by constantly switching between gunplay, swordplay, improvised weapons, and hand-to-hand combat as well as engaging in action at all different scales. One action sequence can be an intimate one-on-one knife fight in a simple room, and the next can be a massive brawl in a bus careening down the highway. The Villainess contains some of the year’s best action sequences with my personal favorite being the motorcycle sword fight. This is easily one of the best chase sequences of the decade and displays incredible choreography, stunt work, and technical craft. The chase is made infinitely more impressive by the director’s resistance toward the use of CGI.
Modern Action Done Right. Director Byung-Gil Jung has a background in stunt work and action choreography. The film uses CGI sparingly, mostly for adding additional cars to the background of chase scenes and other details and allows the stunt work to play out in an impressively uninhibited manner akin to other South Korean films of similar scale and productions like John Wick. Despite the avoidance of CGI, the film is quite modern when it comes to its construction. The cinematography throughout the film, especially in the action sequences, utilizes cutting-edge camera technology to pull off proximities and movements that were previously impossible. The camera work of the film is, dare I say, unique and entirely gripping. I felt some influence from the Raid films, in that the camera work is shaky, but always intelligible, and the movement of the character is often directly replicated in the movement of the camera. Any shortcomings in the story department are compensated for by the camera work when it comes to holding an audience’s attention. The visual stimulation alone makes The Villainess a thoroughly engrossing experience. There were a number of shots that had me verbally exclaiming as I watched the film and wondering how the hell they were executed like when the camera passes between the tires of a speeding motorcycle. All of the praise aside, there are times when the inventive camera work becomes a detriment. Some of the shots are distracting in their complexity and did more to take me out of the moment than to enhance the action. The action utilizes a lot of hidden cuts in an attempt to make the action play out in long unbroken stretches. The issues that arise is that these hidden cuts are frequently not very well executed, again becoming a distraction. There are certain points where the phrase ‘style over substance’ comes to mind.