Whilst Thor: Ragnarok is currently doing well at the box office, it also acts as a reminder that we are still yet to receive a stand-alone film for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Well, until that momentous day, South Korean director Jung Byung-gil (Confession of Murder) appears to have beaten the MCU to the punch with a decadent collision of soap opera machinations and action movie aesthetic that is sure to please comic fans of the Russian leather-clad red head.
Kim Ok-bin (Thirst) plays Sook-Hee, a young assassin arrested after taking out an entire drug den on her own. In exchange for a prison sentence, Sook-Hee is recruited as a sleeper agent for the South Korean Intelligence Service. Their offer is simple: serve ten years under their watch and she’s free to go. After learning a trade with which to cover her real occupation – all done within the confines of a boarding school/prison camp – Sook-Hee is sent out into the big wide world, ready for her orders. Of course, life is never going to be that simple and Sook-Hee soon finds herself caught between the Agency she serves and the demons of her past. Meanwhile, the earlier claim of this film being part soap opera is utterly true; there’s a whole sub-plot to Sook-Hee falling in love with her new neighbour.
If the above description has left you performing a huge shrug, then the film’s opening sequence may very well change your mind. Reminiscent of Gareth Evans’ The Raid and Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry, Byung-gil throws his audience head first into a Sook-Hee-led ballet of destruction, which effortlessly taps into the sweet spot of our brain that rightfully abhors violence and yet can’t help but rubberneck. It’s both energizing and alarming. And, lest others be concerned, the opening isn’t a case of Byung-gil trying to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, whereby nothing else that follows is as equally exhilarating. No, The Villainess manages to deal out several heftier set pieces that are very likely to be imitated by Western cinema. Always thought high-speed motorcycle chases could do with more swordplay? The Villainess wants to help you realise your dreams. Yes, the violence is vicious as it is stylish. Perhaps, morally, there’s something to unpack there. But by Jove, it is highly entertaining.
That said, there are moments when Byung-gil does himself no favours and The Villainess’ worst enemy is itself. This largely comes down the overzealous way Byung-gil lets the story – co-written with Jung Byeong-sik – unfold. It should all be a straightforward affair, and yet the film flitters between the past and present, muddying the narrative with mistimed revelations. Whenever a ‘bombshell’ lands, the chances are high that you’ll already have worked it out before then. And whilst Byung-gil tries so hard to pull the rug from under his audience, he fumbles the ball in other sub-plots. A certain reveal relating to the aforementioned neighbour Sook-Hee falls for is made fairly early in the proceedings – as in, right near the beginning. This is the kind of nugget that – in a film with a lead character running out of people to trust – is best reserved for third acts. Instead, it becomes a wasted opportunity for drama.
That said, if you’re paying to see a film called The Villainess, it’s very unlikely you’re queuing for much in the way of romance or deep thought. So, whilst the narrative choices are frustrating, there’s actually little that stops the film from being an overall blast. If you only watch one film that decides the interior of a bus is suitable grounds for a royal rumble between one woman and several burly men, then let it be this one. You will not be disappointed.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10