A note for the poor, unfortunate sap yet to be called on to direct Marvel’s forthcoming Black Widow film: As part of your homework for this project, you need to watch Jung Byung-gil’s latest production, the action melodrama The Villainess. It’s a masterclass in what to do and what not to do when crafting an action-oriented film around a female lead, more so than its contemporaries and predecessors, from Atomic Blonde to Haywire. Do give the lead a robust, layered backstory. Do not surrender to easy means of conveying said backstory to your audience, lest you sacrifice action. Do respect your protagonist enough to let her get messy and to let her narrative be complex. Don’t mistake “complex” to mean “comically abstruse.”
The list goes on. You’re better off just watching the thing, if not for educational purposes than because it’s a bloody good time at the movies when it’s satisfying its premise. When it isn’t, it’s a disappointment that verges on the unbearable. There’s no good reason The Villainess needs to be this way; it opens in propulsive fashion, coopting the first person POV lens of Hardcore Henry as Jung’s antiheroine, Sook-hee (played by Min Ye-ji in flashbacks, and Kim Ok-bin in the film’s present), mows down scores of faceless bad guys while on a mission of revenge. The particulars of that mission are kept from us to start with, and revealed over the course of the film as Sook-hee is recruited into South Korea’s intelligence bureau, intent on putting her impressive talents for murderin’ to good use.
The Villainess gains flab from there. Sook-hee is trained, she rises up in the ranks, she’s given a new identity and her first official assignment, and she becomes a mom. She has a bun in the oven from the word go, a parting shot by her ex-husband (Shin Ha-kyun), who taught her to kill way back in the day. So for a stretch, the film resembles a mushy romantic flick in which the agent responsible for watching over Sook-hee (Sung Joon) falls in love with her from a distance, and wriggles his way into her life by dint of his duties. (They even have a meet cute. It’d be plain old adorable if its interpersonal politics didn’t feel so icky.) Occasionally, all the faraway glances and restrained flirtations are interrupted by scenes where Sook-hee goes out to butcher a target, but the emphasis here is on “occasionally.”
After kicking things off as it does, The Villainess slowly begins to flounder and flag. If you came into the film about forty minutes in, you’d have no idea what kind of story Jung means to tell us. He wants us to know he means business in his opening act, pulling no punches as men are slain at gunpoint and daggerpoint alike, arterial spray decorating walls, erupting from necks and chests and orifices as Sook-hee plies her vicious trade. The problem isn’t that Jung slows the film down, so much—it’s more that he slams the brakes, shoves it into neutral, and lets it idle for too long before slipping back into drive. In between, he adds twist upon turn upon betrayal upon backstab, and even if you’re keeping diligent notes on the plot’s intricacies as they’re doled out to us, you’ll probably still get lost.
So it’s best not to bother taking notes at all. Don’t even make the effort to make sense of where the cast of characters’ various allegiances lie. For one thing, knowing doesn’t wind up paying off. For another, making the effort takes all the fun out of the exercise, which is part of why The Villainess takes a bummer turn into territory outside of its genre. There’s a way to do what Jung tries to do here without killing momentum, a method for pacing out action scenes with the necessities of character development and plot deployment. When The Villainess lands in that type of groove, it’s superb: Jung’s style as an action filmmaker is most accurately described as “bananatown,” his camera a tool not just of perspective but deception, swooping along the Z-axis as Sook-hee slices through her enemies in artificial long takes fabricated through off-screen chicanery. (Editing is where movie magic really happens.)
But as often as Jung finds that groove, he never stays in it. The Villainess is easy enough to appreciate for its go-for-broke, over-the-top action, for its vibrancy as a work of art, and for its originality: Even if Jung’s influences are easily sniffed out (a la Soderbergh, Ilya Naishuller, and Jung’s countrymen, from Park Chan-wook to Kim Jee-woon), they metastasize in Jung’s frames and become their own thing. There isn’t an action movie out there in 2017 that’s quite like it (for better or for worse), no action movie either as crazy or as committed to its craziness. By contrast, there are superior action movies out there in 2017, but if The Villainess is their inferior, its gleefully unhinged hyperviolence ensures it’s more memorable.
Director: Jung Byung-gil
Writer: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byeong-sik
Starring: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung, Min Ye-ji
Release Date: August 25, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.