Director: Jung Byung-gil
Written by: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byung-sik
Cast: Kim Ok-vin, Shin Han-kyu, Bang Sung-jun, Kim So-hyung
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 8/1/17
Opens: August 25, 2017
This cheerfully brainless Korean action drama sports a plot with almost as many digressions and distractions in its 129 minutes than Donald Trump dishes out in half that time. There is so much blood covering the walls, spurting from noses, foreheads and necks that you’d think South Korea is under attack by Kim Jong-un. Yet for all its martial-arts, vid-game activity, “The Villainess” could be disappointing to a core base of the millions who enjoy spending all their leisure (and work) time competing on their computers because the story could require multiple viewings to deconstruct. Have patience: everything works out by the end, or maybe not: the back-stories, the flashbacks, all serve to allow us in the audience to know the motives of the principals. Did I say many, i.e. those who blinked at any point, may need to see it again?
In the tradition of the cinema of Korean mayhem such as Park Chan-wook’s 2003 revenge drama “Old Boy,” in which a man imprisoned for 15 years must wreak vengeance within five days—and of all-American fare like Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” released the same year, “The Villainess” also reminds us of one of the great thrillers of its kind, Luc Besson’s “La femme Nikita.” “Nikita” was popular enough to be remade here in a simpler Hollywood form as “The Point of No Return.” Here as in Besson’s thriller, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), whose goal in life is to avenge the murder of her father, is compelled by a secret government organization to work as an assassin. She is bound to the group for ten years, after which she will be freed with a nice pension (though one wonder whether the government had to spend much tax money on retirements given the short spans of life enjoyed by its agents).
Director Jung Byung-gil wastes no time capturing the attention of the audience, many of whom don’t give much of a fig for motives but are in their seats to enjoy seven minutes of butchery. Sook-hee alone takes on scores of men, some with Arnold Schwarzenegger builds, hacking them with swords, belting them in their noses, stabbing them in the neck. The mayhem is the work of choreographer Kwon-Gui-duck, who in one scene features ballerinas doing their pas-de-deux in bold contrast to the “dances” going on within the building. Sook-hee’s mentor, Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) allows Sook-hee to leave the building with her cute daughter at which time, the flashbacks are loosed making the movie more incomprehensible than “Dunkirk” with that war film’s three interwoven time threads.
The most interesting aspect, strangely enough, is not the violence, but the courtship between Sook-hee and Hyun-so (Bang Sung-jun), perhaps because romance is something that everything in the U.S. and Korea can understand. Hyun-soo lives next door to Sook-hee, courting her with such erotic conversations as “I can make you boiled chicken,” but the nice young man is in fact a secret agent sent to keep tabs on Sook-hee.
Breathtaking scenes include one in which the title villainess on her wedding day puts together a sniper’s rifle in the bathroom, which as we learned from “The Godfather” is the place for gangsters to hide guns. She trains the telescopic site on her target, which, for added suspense, moves in and out among the men present—and we discover as well that both the bride and the groom each have hired guests at the festivities.
If you love mass executions and don’t care about the reasons—much as in today’s world countries are at war without really knowing why—go for it. If you want romance only, then stick to “Hotelier,” “Alone in Love,” and “Full House,” all showing on South Korean TV.
Rated R. 129 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?
Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B