The Villainess (South Korea 2017)

Rating: ****
Alternate Title: Ak-Nyeo
Review Date: 1/1/18
Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Jun Sung, Kim Seo-hyeong

A highly skilled North Korean assassin named Sook-hee (stunning Kim Ok-bin) goes on a massive killing spree in a fit of anger and is subsequently arrested. Recognizing her skills and potential, the South Korean government recruits her and reconditions her to be a sleeper agent for them. Unfortunately, her quiet life on the outside falls apart when she's instructed to kill a man from her past who she thought was already dead. Driven to the edge of sanity, her heart breaks, her mind cracks, and she becomes a liability to both sides. The cost of revenge is high, and she pays for it many times over.

Who would have thought that after 27 years, people would still be remaking Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita?" I guess that speaks to the power and appeal of the material. Kim Ok-bin is absolutely astounding as Sook-hee. She's both deadly and beautiful, and fights with the skill and proficiency of a finely tuned instrument of lethal rage. She's also a doomed and tragic character who is mentally, physically, and emotionally manipulated and abused by everyone around her, and treated as an expensive, but ultimately disposable tool. Her unwavering stone-cold expression seethes intensity and just barely contains her explosive fury, which makes it extra shocking when her exterior cracks and emotions start spilling out. She's a powerful and convincing actress, both physically and dramatically, and her feminine charms are equally appealing. Another strong female character is the no-nonsense, hard-as-nails Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong), who oversees Sook-hee's training, conditioning, and mission objectives. She's a wonderful character who has seen her own share of horrors, and may be even harder and colder than Sook-hee.

There's nothing particularly interesting or memorable about the story, and the entire second act is disappointingly slow and tedious as she settles into suburbia and finds love and contentment. Where the film excels is in its violently outrageous action pieces, which are visually stunning and unbelievably filmed. I'm not a fan of handheld, Go-Pro, and drone-based action cinematography, but this is cutting edge filmmaking and definitely the way of the future. The rapid camera movement is insane and the angles are so seemingly impossible that I couldn't wrap my head around how it was done. On this point I feel conflicted and confused, because the gonzo photography is so sophisticated and technically brilliant, but at the same time very hard to watch and follow. Another major annoyance is the overuse of drop-frame editing to speed up the action. There must be a better way to pull this off, because the results are jarring and visually disruptive. The physical stunts are very impressive, although the occasional wire stunt or CGI effect looks bad and brings too much attention to itself. It's an unapologetically violent and bloody film, but it never feels gratuitous or exploitive because the main focus is always on the characters. In only one scene does the blood seem excessive and odd, but mostly because it takes on an unnaturally bright pink color. I'm not sure what was up with that, whether it was intentional or the result of lighting and/or filters. But it was definitely distracting.

The fight choreography is very good, and Sook-hee utilizes guns, knives, swords, and traditional martial arts to meet her objectives. What's important to point out here is that the director wanted Sook-hee's fight scenes to be handled as if they were two men fighting. This is exactly the right approach, and is what I always look for in female action cinema. Once you drop the gender bias and have two opponents facing each other as equals, femininity comes through in expression, personality, and the grace of execution. I thought it was utterly brilliant, and Kim Ok-bin's unflinching performance totally sells it. Excellent work all around. I haven't seen any of her other work, but I'm thoroughly looking forward to seeing her embrace the action genre and cultivate an action persona based on her performance in this film.