Review: 'The Villainess' Is A Grisly, Topsy-Turvy Revenge Flick In The 'Lady Vengeance' Mold

Ever since Park Chan-Wook's bloody classic Oldboy, Korea has been on the literal cutting of the revenge movie genre. That hasn't changed in the years since, and it actually is more true today now than ever with the addition of Byung-gil Jung's The Villainess, a topsy-turvy actioner that should dazzle fans of Lady Vengeance and Hardcore Henry.

The Villainess is firing on all cylinders straight from the break, in a blistering first-person POV action sequence straight out of a shoot 'em up video game. That's when we, the authorities, and her unfortunate victims, first encounter Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin, best known for Park Chan-Wook's Thirst) as she single-handedly slaughters an entire gang of thugs. What's cool about this scene, besides the indiscriminate bloodbath captured by Jung's blistering camerawork, is how it's framed.

We've seen the first-person POV a lot lately, but Jung occasionally rotates around so that we can see Sook-hee's innocent face. In this case, it comes as her head is being slammed into a mirror, and the change of perspective is both jarring and a bonding experience. We instantly identify with this woman who has thrown herself into the lion's den for reasons unknown. And later on, when Jung cuts away from the action to give us this frame of reference again, we feel similarly attached to her cause.

And that comes in handy because her life is one crazy-ass meat grinder. Arrested by the cops, Sook-hee is then recruited by a secret organization of trained assassins, run by the secretive Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung). This place is nuts, like those weird Black Widow flashback sequences from The Avengers: Age of Ultron, mixed with a little bit of John Wick and a lot of Full Metal Jacket. The young women being trained there pull no punches; they aim to kill, but each classroom also teaches them less obvious skills like cooking and stage acting, the latter in front of actual audiences. Sook-hee is made a promise: work as a covert assassin for 10 years and she'll be allowed to live outside the compound with her daughter. Daughter? Yep, Sook-hee arrived pregnant, giving her a maternal reason to want to do as she's told and try to have a normal life.

Jung spoonfeeds us this information slowly and deliberately, but there's so much that it becomes too convolute to make much sense. Eventually, a couple of mysterious men from Sook-hee's past emerge with different agendas, all of which will lead to violence and mayhem on an epic scale. Throw in the mix Sook-hee's surprisingly sweet romance with Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun), and what you have is a film that is as much spy thriller and love story as killer tale of revenge. But it's that final aspect where the film works best. While Sook-hee's eventually-revealed origin has echoes of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (he basically apes the O-Ren Ishii story), the non-linear method he uses to tell it leaves us disconnected. I'm not sure all of the various puzzle pieces fit when finally put together.  It's only when we can see Sook-hee in the present, slicing and dicing those who screwed her that we sympathize. Jung has a gifted eye for choreographing kinetic action scenes with unforgettable imagery. Whether its the sight of Sook-hee sniping a target in her white bridal gown, or a katana fight atop speeding motorcycles, or a grisly showdown aboard a hurtling bus, you'll never get bored of The Villainess even if she remains a mystery.

Rating: 3 out of 5