Directed by Jung Byung-gil
Starring Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung
How do I explain this…?
You ever go on a date with someone fun and you’re, like, a 95% match, but then they say something that grinds the conversation to a halt, and it throws the integrity of the match into question and also possibly the premise of matchmaking itself, that there are no true matches, only fish in an endless sea broiling with riptide and Bermuda Triangles? Well, I didn’t actually go on a date with director Jung Byung-gil, but him and I are that 95% match, and his 2017 film The Villainess is my Bermuda Triangle. It is a siren’s song; it is my doom.
On paper, this is a hardcore Korean action thriller with a female lead, a bullet with my name on it. Imagine Lady Vengeance by way of Lady Snowblood, or a gender-bent I Saw the Devil. Like with classic New Wave gateway Oldboy, I was already dealt in by a single scene: the incredible first-person throat-knifing sprint which opens the movie. It’s a stunner, and set my expectations for a bloodbath. In practice however, The Villainess took me two tries. After the throat-knifing, the movie proceeds to shake you loose with ferocity, burdening the already engagement-unfriendly flashback with confusingly parallel narrative elements: lead character Sook-hee is trained in the present by an intelligence agency, and trained in the past by a militant gang or cult. Not only are these two organizations barely contextualized, but what are the odds our badass-in-training was already a specific sort of badass? The mental gymnastics didn’t then prepare me for a subsequent romantic subplot, so I tapped out.
By this point in the conversation with Jung Byung-gil over coffee at the Paris Baguette (in those big glass mugs), I’m getting nervous. I redirect with a corny ice breaker: favorite action movies? I say Hard Boiled, he says Exiled. Impressive. I say Punisher: War Zone, he says Blade. Nice. I say Leon: The Professional, he says La Femme Nikita, and all the air escapes the room. Dude, fuck La Femme Nikita. I don’t like that movie, and I especially don’t like the pattern it set in its own many derivations but also in movies like Red Sparrow and Anna and arguably Atomic Blonde, these which are kind of spy-ish, kind of femme fatale-ish. You see, women use their sexuality as a weapon. As much as I generally prefer, in action movies, the use of weapons as weapons, what gets me about this tradition is the whole “Now you work for me” angle which comes fast and furious in The Villainess. In fact, Jung was inspired to make The Villainess by La Femme Nikita, and suddenly, all my dreams of an ultraviolent Lady Vengeance are falling away (I mean, ultraviolence not directed at small children and dogs).
There’s a central dilemma with this Nikita formula. Yes, a neo-noir influence has a slow-down effect on action and also has a nasty habit of equalizing the violence among genders — I don’t like to see that — but more so, I don’t like the idea of women in bondage. It makes me uncomfortable. Now, we’re talking about entertainment here, and there’s a difference between being perfectly willing to watch movies that discomfort me, like Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, and deciding that Irreversible is a real dolt. I’m not barring myself from challenging material, simply observing that discomforting elements in a movie make me uncomfortable. With The Villainess, the bondage is figurative: Sook-hee is pressed into government service, and I’d rather see a character like this act of her own agency. For me, that’s a strong hangup. Even if this movie built toward a reclamation of that power, or made any statement about gender relations, we’re still moving the line of scrimmage yards and yards behind first down, which was, let’s not forget, throat-knifing.
It was many months later that I set myself down to rewatch, and even got excited again. At the time, I was exploring yakuza movies. I don’t know about you, but gangster media always feels like one half of an equation, much like the ninja movie: these archetypes now inhabiting the spotlight are usually fodder for action heroes. Well, one of these days, the Punisher will be a woman, so to speak, and amidst the absurd posturing of Beat Takeshi’s Outrage trilogy, for example, I’m envisioning that razor-blade contrast in the action heroine who simplifies all the double-cross politics with rounds out of a machine-gun. Indeed, it was my simmering frustration at Takashi Miike movies which provided my mindset going into the second try at The Villainess: for her part in gangster-slaying, how will Sook-hee shape up? I know she’s “on a leash,” but so long as she kills, so long as she’s cool, I can compartmentalize and separate the action from the context. Jung got me this far, two wrong turns later; I’ll take it from here.
Sook-hee is sent out on missions, and damn, she’s cool. She might not be packing the cruelty of her contemporaries, preferring efficient take-downs over the testicle-shrinking sadism imparted by, say, the two leads in I Saw the Devil — to date, a violence benchmark for Korean cinema — but actress Kim Ok-bin embodies Sook-hee with intensity and terrifying enigma. Her performance reminded me of Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su, though Sook-hee is all rabid dog and none of the humanity. In a heartwarming moment, Dae-su jokes to Mi-Do to wish next time for a younger man, because Park likes his comedy blacker than black, and then the old boy rides off to the final confrontation. Sook-hee instead appears at the final confrontation, atop a parking garage. As we’ll see, her Mi-dos are dead.
There’s nothing but cold revenge fueling this blackened heart. And yet, for an odd detail, Sook-hee fails each of her missions. Not a single mission ends in victory or catharsis. It might be something like the opposite of plot armor, or maybe a police procedural where the detectives always just miss the killer. At least have that montage like in Robocop where he becomes Robocop and does three super cool things in a row before the plot forces complications on him. No, not here. Sook-hee makes the most of these botched missions, but in this depowered power fantasy, she is always on the backfoot. Extremely good at kicking ass, but Jung is interested in other things. How could that be possible? Don’t tell me I’m not supposed to take a film’s first scene as a thesis statement! Our winding plot offers Sook-hee precious few opportunities to punch and kick and slice and shoot through the competition, burdening those few scenes with unfair duty. I mean, for God’s sake, we don’t even need to be theoretical about this plummeting ass-kicking quotient (AKQ).
By my count, there are three entire asses in this film which go unkicked. Three unanswered confrontations set up throughout the movie, leaving a tiny roar at the pit of me: Where was the reckoning? First, there’s the conflict between Sook-hee and her handler, then Sook-hee and her trainee rival, and finally, most excitingly, Sook-hee and her dopey boyfriend. Where do these go? The handler is an obvious target for Sook-hee’s wrath, but turns out to be more sympathetic (to someone) than initially seemed. The rival is twice antagonistic, but pitifully dispatched by a secondary villain. I’m not even sure what happened to that secondary villain. And finally, we have paramour Jung Hyun-soo, and, boy, he’s got a story.
In an unorthodox move, Hyun-soo is not revealed to us. We see him monitor Sook-hee as she trains and sleeps. He works for the intelligence agency and jumps at the chance to be her covert supervisor in the field, as it comes with a promotion and the potential for romance. What kind of moron — besides me — wants to get with a woman whose idea of exercise is knifing dozens of men in the throat and throwing herself out a window? This, I think to myself, smiling, with the delicious foreknowledge of the reckoning. It’s coming; I mean, why else would we know the truth about him, rather than have a heartbreaking twist? Soon, she’ll learn that truth, and she’ll kick his ass for it. Thus, in the predawn light of the reckoning, we’ll also see him squirm, in too deep and under constant threat of her violence.
Instead, in glorious slow-motion, Hyun-soo is tossed, cradling an infant, out of a high-rise apartment by an explosion, while Sook-hee runs to intercept their fall. You see, Hyun-soo’s feelings became genuine, or maybe started out that way. His death is tragic. I don’t know when we’re supposed to find him sympathetic, because I feel like the premise of his character makes sympathy almost impossible, but by the time of his twice-recorded heroic death, it’s clear that he was the government-sponsored stalker who mattered. To be fair, he is charming. It might be the way the actor’s smile scrunches his mouth up to his nose, or that his attempts to court Sook-hee are Rocky Balboa levels of bad. Even in-universe, he comes on too strong. And as a downright boy — this is a rare case, globally speaking, where the male lead is younger than the female lead — he’s meant to contrast with the daddier Lee Joong-sang, played by the otherwise perennially youthful spirit Shin Ha-kyun, but also provides an appealing foil to the stoic Sook-hee.
This is like the tragedy of the third man in the K-drama love triangle. However, in this case, there is no wrenching dramatic trade-off for the shipper’s blueballing. Like with the handler, who I’m sure maintains a deadly martial arts mastery, like with the wild rival, there is no resolution in blood for Hyun-soo. The story wants me to care about the relationship in a far more conventional way than I do, and I care a lot. The other examples of a pairing like this (could have been) are few, and a mixed bag. You have Revy and Rock from Black Lagoon, who represent my favorite relationship between two characters ever. There’s Celty and Shinra from Durarara!!, which is more overtly romantic. Celty is great, but I think Shinra was too much of a smart alec, could always talk his way out of her grip. Rock was never so lucky. And then there’s the husband and wife of Caution, Hazardous Wife, which I loved so dearly until the end of the series, upon the extremely obvious twist I actually did not see coming, partly because I desperately feared its arrival. To my consternation, Sook-hee and Hyung-soo never even get this far. You want to know what’s fucked up? When Sook-hee learns about Hyung-soo’s deception, the reason she doesn’t kick his ass is because she’s actually, factually tied to a fucking chair. So it’s not all figurative. What happened to my reckoning?
Maybe this is unfair. Most importantly, this is an action showcase for Kim Ok-bin, and I must emphasize again that she is spectacular. However, we enter another conundrum. Kim is actually a martial artist, but not specifically a martial arts actor like a Jet Li or Tony Jaa (Korea has its own martial art, but no taekwondo film tradition?). Korean entertainment, with its one-season TV shows, maybe they prefer to do something once and move on. This troubling theory stems, I realize, from my eternal sadness that Young Ae-lee’s body count remains three. Seriously, I don’t think you can renew your Korean actor union membership without killing at least three people a year, though Young has scored some big hits: the evil mom from Cheer Up, both Kang Ho-song and Ha-kyun Shin, and then Choi Min-sik if you want to give her that one. She ended the Vengeance Trilogy by killing the Vengeance Trilogy — love it. If Kim does another action movie in her home country, with all its obsessions and delirious excesses, I’ll have arrived to it with such speed as powered by what might seem precognition. I know what she can do now, and it’s beautiful. It’s necessary.
The Villainess is rough, and it seems to mistake its origin, Nikita, with endgame. I have no idea what the movie is about, other than a genre exercise, or a subgenre exercise. And yet, the colors and textures are all proper and Korean, and the action cinematography is wild, if too frantic for my tastes. There’s a definite object on the part of the director to place the viewer inside Sook-hee’s kinetic headspace, whether or not that happens literally or with panoramic sweeps in tight spaces. I trust that overall, in the balance of these ups and downs, The Villainess is a good, possibly great movie. Clearly, I have tunnel vision and can’t land at what’s consensus. “Tunnel,” is too broad, though. What I do is watch a movie while watching a movie in my mind, the ideal version which I’ve already described a few times here. One of these days, the composite will be perfect, but for now, The Villainess is perfectly illustrative of the straining, frustrating movements of progress.
If looks could kill… Look at me, noona!