Movie Review: 'The Villainess' (2017)

Opening with a daring action sequence, “The Villainess” makes its intentions known from the get-go. Jung Byung-gil’s sudsy revenge epic is beyond bold, and you will know if you are sold within its first breathless minutes. With its hook firmly in place; viewers are pulled through a time-hopping storyline that clarifies the opener, while also taking you beyond it.

Who is "The Villainess?" Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is one of the most intriguing characters to surge across the silver screen, in a long time. She is enigmatic, yet knowable, calm yet ballistic. She is an avenger whose mission, once revealed, is entirely understandable, and her determination, admirable.

A protagonist seeking revenge is not a strange theatrical concept. Nor is a character being backed into a corner, and forced to use their gifts to do an organization’s bidding.

The thing that pleasantly sets “The Villainess” apart from its genre counterparts, (i.e., “La Femme Nikita” etc.) is that Sook-hee enters her fate with an already impressive and vast set of skills. She doesn’t have to learn them. She refines them. 

As the mystery surrounding how and why she ended up leading a bloody assault upon her enemies is slowly revealed, another just as electrifying story runs parallel. As it turns out, the future is equally teeming with possibilities.

Vividly lensed by cinematographer Park Jung-hun, “The Villainess” (originally titled: “Ak-Nyeo”) is a sharply directed revenge opus that is relentlessly enthralling. While its action sequences are chilling, its execution of the personal story surrounding Sook-hee, in both the past and the present, is just as powerfully portrayed. Character development in an action thriller is a hard thing to come by, and “The Villainess” masterfully weaves it in, without it ever feeling forced.

This story never holds back from going to the dark places, crime, vengeance, and the attempts to extract one’s self from it can take someone. Embodying the persona of its lead character, “The Villainess” never backs down from what is inevitable in these narratives, nor does it cower in its wake.

While so many stories in this genre attempt to subvert its inevitable end, “The Villainess” leans into it, as its audience braces itself, hoping for a better outcome than its framework dictates. It is a captivating cutthroat actioner, and it never goes off course.

Packed into its 2-hour runtime is a cascade of action sequences, suspenseful spy games, and two love stories. As the deception and double-crosses pile up, the movie finds a moment to breathe with some happiness, even though it is underlined by the themes mentioned above. When it comes to joy, the romance between Sook-hee and secret agent Hyun-soo (Jun Sung) is one of the highlights. 

[Image by Next Entertainment World]
Somewhere in this messy, brutal world, the light of these two characters’ interaction shines through with effervescent appeal. The chemistry between their portrayers, Kim Ok-bin and Sung Jun, vests the movie with its most upbeat scenes and a sense of flickering hope for a positive outcome.

Kim Ok-bin is an absolute revelation as Sook-hee, nailing the varying levels of this complicated character’s multitude of layers. It is a performance that is in a word; transcendent. Kim portrays Sook-hee as equally as vulnerable, as she is ferocious, and that requires a rare skill she uses to magnificent effect.

Her co-star Sung Jun is identically captivating as Hyun-soon, the operative who is quickly taken with Sook-hee. Sung plays Hyun-soon with a sincerity and pureness of heart that is charming, even as danger from within lurks around the bend.

As a whole, the ensemble is exquisite. Every character, be it supporting or lead, is marvelously cast. Every actor emits a hidden component lying just beneath the surface of their steely exterior with a gravitas that is indelible.

Also notable is Kim Seo-hyeong, who brings depth to the seemingly frigid Chief Kwon. Thanks to Kim, even a character as cold as Chief Kwon evokes a sense of tenderness, which may or may not exist. Even so, she makes you wonder.

The key to revenge dramas is exploring that wonder, whilst walking a tricky tightrope of light and darkness, truth, and subterfuge, suffering, and triumph. “The Villainess” makes that stroll look easier than it is.

Rating: 9/10

[Featured Image by Next Entertainment World]

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