Fantasia first look: The Villainess (Ak-Nyeo)

Breathless action and a mission of vengeance in Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess

“So melodramatic,” says trained killer Kim-sun (Jo Eun-ji) as two of her colleagues, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) and Min-joo (Son Min-ji), spend a little too long on their farewells to each other.

It is a familiar criticism levelled by western viewers at the sentimental sensibilities so often found in Korean cinema – and yet Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (Ak-Nyeo) lets us know right from the outset that as an action film, it means business. Opening with two breathless, (apparent) single-takes – the first a five-minute point-of-view shot, the second a three-minute reeling dance around Sook-hee – this prologue shows our protagonist dispatching countless ranks of armed thugs in a building, before leaping down into a rainy alley below to be arrested by pistol-pointing police.

Reminiscent all at once of Tony Jaa’s four-minute single-take assault on a building in Prachya Pinkaew’s Warrior King (2005), of the corridor fights in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) and Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011), and of the gaming perspective of a first-person shooter, this introduction lays out the film’s commitment to uncompromisingly bloody and viscerally unsentimental violence.

From here on in, however, The Villainess becomes more like Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990), as Jung teases out the contradictions in a woman set on revenge and raised to kill, yet driven even more by her desire for “a normal life” – and for love. Accordingly, as the arrested Sook-hee is forcibly employed by a shadowy government organisation to be a ‘sleeper agent’, and flashbacks reveal her similar recruitment by a gang of contract assassins, we come to realise that she is always being left – against near impossible odds – to take on single-handed the full force of male hierarchies.

If the messiness of her missions reveals a highly skilled woman compromised – or is that redeemed? – by maternity and marriage, the only reward for her efforts is permission for a little freedom (an apartment of her own, marriage to the one she loves, a future for her young daughter) that will all turn out, in one way or another, to be illusory. Compared to the opening sequence, all these scenes at the film’s centre are indeed a little melodramatic – but they also humanise Sook-hee, revealing her struggles as she is caught in a repeating cycle of betrayal and loss at the hands of manipulative men. See-hook’s chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) may also be a woman, but significantly she is herself controlled by a committee of men calling the shots.

In its climax, The Villainess returns to the precision kickassery of its opening, as the camera – again in an impossibly sinuous single take – tracks an axe-wielding Sook-hee in her onslaught onto, through, and off a barrelling bus-load of villains, like an inverted Speed (1994). In a sense, this is the film returning us to what we truly desire from the action genre – all movement and no melodrama – yet it is also returning Sook-hee right back to where she started, and where she herself, rather pointedly, no longer desires to be (if indeed she ever did): a fast-moving, dynamic heroine trapped, paradoxically, in the stasis of a society primed to repress female progress or escape.

The Villainess was seen and reviewed at Fantasia International Film Festival. For more information visit the website.