The Villainess opens with one of the most insane action scenes ever committed to film, both for its stunts and its camera work. Like Hardcore Henry, the harrowing fight scene is shot from a first-person perspective, making it look more like a shooter video game such as Call of Duty instead of a film. Unlike that film, the carefully constructed pseudo-continuous take eventually switches to a standard third-person perspective, revealing that our protagonist is a woman who is handily dismembering and demolishing dozens of men in a multi-story building. The intense close-quarters fighting is heightened by incredible camera work that takes our view right up into and through the action, constantly in motion to capture the skirmishes from within millimeters of the fray.
Unfortunately, the lengthy action scene eventually comes to an end, moving the film into a nearly unbearable middle hour of melodrama and confusing flashbacks. While the Blu-ray cover text prominently proclaims “an endless VENGEANCE begins”, misleadingly bringing to mind fellow Korean Chan-Wook Park’s classic Vengeance Trilogy, director Jung Byung-Gil simply doesn’t have the chops to handle the dramatic elements of the film, dooming huge swaths of his film to lukewarm melodrama that would be more at home in a K-drama TV show than a kinetic action film.
The story follows a woman (Kim Ok-Vin) out for revenge against the criminal organization that killed her boyfriend, until they capture her and compel her to be an assassin for them by threatening her child, going so far as to perform plastic surgery on her to completely alter her looks. Once she’s released back into society as a sleeper agent for them, she’s unknowingly assigned a male watcher who ends up falling in love with her. Eventually, their enemies locate them and set up a final showdown between two criminal groups both searching for a valuable diamond. The story seems straightforward enough, but is constantly interrupted with confusing flashbacks to attempt to color in some missing pieces, making plot progression drag to a halt as we waste time learning about past events that really don’t need the attention. Thankfully, a crazy car chase scene breaks up part of the boring middle act, and an even more incredible final action scene brings plenty of thrills and resolution to the story.
I was constantly amazed by the action scenes, questioning whether they were really filmed as up-close and continuous as they seemed or if some post-production trickery was at play. The making-of bonus feature included on the Blu-ray somewhat answered my questions, revealing that the camera men really were so enmeshed in the action that the camera was frequently getting hit in the fray, and the lead actress was largely performing her own superb stunts. I would love more detail on how director Jung choreographed the scenes and camera placement, but the glimpses shown here go a long way to showing why the action scenes are so intense. Jung has a bright future in action direction, as he truly has a distinct and innovative approach deserving of a wide audience, but his ham-handed treatment of the dramatic elements call into question his viability as a feature length director. The Villainess is absolutely worth a watch for the fantastic action set pieces, but falls short as a compelling dramatic film.