The opening scene to The Villainess employs the same video game POV styling of Hardcore Henry, although here director Byung-gil Jung doesn’t mince any words.
While directed flashy, this opening scene benefits from its frenetic whip pans which hide some shoddy CG blood effects. Five minutes into the film, when the camera pulls back to reveal our protagonist for the evening—the almost mechanically ferocious Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim)—the camera captures stunt choreography more successfully. Still, the whole scene remains overly frantic and shaky.
Why spend so much time discussing the film’s opening scene? It is eight-and-a-half minutes long, made up of one or two long takes. Impressive but flawed, as could be said for The Villainess as a whole.
The camera moves on a swivel, tracking with Sook-hee and occasionally swinging around her in order to reveal telling reaction shots. It is mobile with a human pulse, engaging with the action as if the camera itself is a combatant. By no means is this the first film to utilize such a complicit mobile camera, but it is one of the ever-fleeting saving graces of The Villainess.
Being that they both are South Korean hardcore action flicks with crossover appeal to a Western audience, The Villainess feels akin to Oldboy, an arguably much better film. They are revenge films with imprisonment narratives that utilize highly-stylized choreography and cinematic flourishes to stack up a sizeable body count. Where Oldboy continues to build on its world and central character as it leads us to a shocking conclusion that feels like something out of a Greek tragedy, The Villainess peters out with each lengthy action sequence.
This is mainly due to the discordant juxtaposition of action sequence with flashback. The flashbacks are meant to build on Sook-hee’s character, bringing us to a point where we feel and sympathize with her plight. Doing this should make us root for her as she mows down the mobs of people that stand in the way of her peace of mind, but it doesn’t.
The action sequences are less emotionally poignant as the film goes along because they often do not convince us that the fight is part of Sook-hee’s plight. Most of the time, it reads more like Jung is merely utilizing the space to show off his skill at directing action instead of as a way of building stakes or emotion.
The Villainess never transcends this fundamental problem. Sook-he is never exposed to us in a way that allows us to be part of her struggle. Instead, we idly watch as blood is shed and the camera whips around tight spaces. In moments, this might be enough, these occasional flourishes of cinematic rigor. Ultimately, though, they lead to nothing lasting, nothing substantial.
The Villainess: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)