Killer of a movie

Updated: 2017-06-16 06:59

By Elizabeth Kerr(HK Edition)

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In our post-Wonder Woman world, the time seems right for a take-no-prisoners, all-business lady killer. It's amazing there hasn't been one since South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook trotted out Lady Vengeance as the final part of his Vengeance Trilogy in 2005. The South Koreans have practically reinvented the revenge thriller in the meantime, with films like The Man from Nowhere, I Saw the Devil and Hwayi mixing brutality and visual flair like few others. With girls proving to be the opposite of box office poison, director Jung Byung-gil brings us The Villainess, a pulpy actioner that raises its ridiculous stakes every second and never once apologies for it.

Like all great assassin movies, there's a convoluted back story that only makes sense some of the time, even by its own cock-eyed internal logic. Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin, revenge maestro Park's Thirst) is a highly trained killer who, after taking revenge on the 50 or 60 dudes that murdered her father, is picked up by the police and quickly fingered by a shady intelligence agency - or maybe an assassin's guild, or an organized crime gang, it's never clear - as a potential asset. Her talent is obvious to the enigmatic boss, Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung in full ice queen mode), largely due to her ability to dispatch bad guys who are polite enough to attack Sook-hee in an orderly, one-at-a-time fashion. Kwon promises her freedom and a new identity if she gives them 10 years of work, which she agrees to. You see, Sook-hee is also a recent widow and pregnant as well. She does the job, they let her go, but her past, in the form of first love and trainer Joong-Sang (veteran Shin Ha-kyun), catches up with her like it always does with assassins who are trying to go straight. Let the bloodletting begin.

The Villainess plays like a video game in many of its most memorable fight sequences. The opening action salvo is right out of a first-person shooter. And like in a game, we're treated to interludes that provide a wisp of character development or some kind of context for said action. Unlike John Wick and Charlize Theron's upcoming Atomic Blonde, in The Villainess all the questions hang over the head of the central character, while the rest of the characters are never addressed, leaving gaping narrative holes all over the place. Riffing on those two films as well as on Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, Jung and writer Jung Byeong-sik make a detour into a plodding and wholly familiar romance in act two, where Kwon assigns an agency colleague, Hyun-Soo (Bang Sung-jun) to keep an eye on Sook-hee and report back. If you guessed he'd genuinely fall in love with her and meet a tragic end proving his love, you're absolutely right.

But hoary conventions and an initially confusing non-linear structure don't really matter: Jung has cobbled together a slick, gonzo pulp entertainment whose glue is a nimble performance by Kim, who somehow manages to shade Sook-hee with hints of regret, rage, maternal gentleness and betrayal and look fantastic while doing it. Jung gets great support from Park Jun-hung's noirish, moody black and blue cinematography, and proves himself an adept manipulator of images. His debut was the twisty Confessions of a Murder, and in his second effort he creates the kind of memorable set pieces Korea's best would be proud of: the final showdown between Sook-hee and her nemesis starts with her chasing a minibus down a highway while perched on the hood of a car. It's a picture for the ages.

(HK Edition 06/16/2017 page12)