blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Villainess (2017, Jung Byung-gil)

The Villainess manages to be technically superior without ever being technically impressive. Despite editor Heo Sum-mi and cinematographer Park Jung-hun cutting together extravgent action sequences–the finale is protagonist Kim Ok-bin chasing down a bus, jumping onto it, attacking the bad guys within, getting inside, and going through multiple different fistfights. The camera is fluid–with director Jung getting his pointless fisheye lens on again–and the editing is… well. The editing isn’t smooth, because it’s intentionally choppy. Villainess drops frames for mood. The editing is successful; successful is more accurate.

The film starts with a first person action sequence. It’s like watching a video game. It’s amazing fight choreography and so on, but it’s crap narrative. Jung’s an utterly tepid action director. Usually he can at least shoot big set pieces, but sometimes he lets the technical possibilities get in front of the narrative neccessities. Jung’s got no respect for the action itself, just those technical tricks. But he’s fine at pretty much everything else he has to direct in Villainess, whether romance, melodrama, or even tragedy.

In that first sequence, Kim is an unstoppable killing machine. While I didn’t count, she probably kills forty or fifty guys. We don’t know why she’s killing them. They’re dudes, which isn’t hard to stretch into reason enough. It’s a gang of some sort. The eventual motivation given for Kim’s attack is undercooked, but nowhere near as undercooked as some of director Jung and Byeong-sik’s script. They’re much better at flirt scenes than international assassin exposition.

Caught after the killing spree–that apprehension doesn’t make logical sense, with Jung pacing out the sequence for melodramatic effect–Kim ends up in a secret government agency training young women to be assassins. They also learn cooking, stage acting, and something else. It’s basically La Femme Nikita. Kim Seo-hyeong is the strict but fair boss of the agency; it’s a thankless role. The tough assassin boss lady sending her “daughters” to death. Sung Jun is the cute desk agent (all the men are desk agents). He falls in love with lead Kim and gets assigned to be her handler–though she doesn’t know it–and romances her. He’s nice to her kid.

And Sung and Kim are pretty good together. The film’s perfectly well-acted. Whatever Jung’s directing faults, none have to do with how directs the cast. He’s fine at it. Good when it’s the flirty stuff. The Villainess always wants to be cute because then it can tug at the heartstrings. Except the script doesn’t give it any heartstrings.

In flashback, we learn how Kim ended up at the gang headquarters level. Turns out her father was killed in front of her eyes and she was taken by his murderer. Then she’s rescued by “good guy” assassin mastermind Shin Ha-kyun. She’s a kid at this point. He trains her to be his best assassin. Then they get married because she’s fallen in love with him. Then he gets killed trying to find her father’s murderer.

It takes more than half of the film’s two hour plus runtime to get all the back story out. And then, of course, there are further reveals later on because everyone’s been lying to Kim. Except the viewer knows it so you just have to watch her be humilated for her shortcomings. Sometimes it’s her intelligence, sometimes it’s her cooking, sometimes it’s her inability to kill with superhuman ability anymore. There’s no explanation for why Kim goes from super-killer to someone who wants to run run run away. Oh, she has a kid, but it’s a mystery kid and then it gets to be a toddler in no time, as Kim trains to be an assassin.

The movie where Kim learns to be an assassin while being a single parent living in an assassin school with fifty other deadly female assassins, many who don’t like her? There’s a movie. And probably one Jung would direct better.

There are third act reveals, one after the other, big and small. Then there’s the action finale.

The third act’s a misfire and Jung thinks the size of the set piece is going to make all the difference. But it doesn’t. The script’s got too many bad decisions piled up by the end. It’s failed the actors too much. Kim goes from having this great character to being Sung’s girlfriend. He even takes over the child care scenes, so Kim loses her kid’s presence. Instead, Kim goes on missions but never good ones. She always screw up. Because she’s not an unstoppable killing machine.

It’s too bad The Villainess doesn’t work out. It didn’t need to do much, just not get too stupid. Enter the script.

Kim’s good, frequently obviously capable of more. The movie just doesn’t give her scenes. Sung’s a solid goofus sweet nerd guy. Kim Seo-hyeong’s fine as the boss. Shin’s mostly good as the assassin with a heart of gold. The script’s the problem.

And Jung’s direction. If he could direct action sequences instead of just coordinate them, The Villainess might have been able to weather its stupidity.



Directed by Jung Byung-gil; written by Jung Byeong-sik and Jung Byung-gil; director of photography, Park Jung-hun; edited by Heo Sun-mi; music by Koo Ja-wan; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Kim Ok-bin (Sook-hee), Shin Ha-kyun (Joong-sang), Sung Jun (Hyun-soo), Kim Seo-hyeong (Chief Kwon), and Jo Eun-ji (Kim Seon).


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