Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess bursts out of the gate with merciless intensity. Suggesting a marriage of Hardcore Henry and The Raid, Jung’s film opens with a seven-minute, mostly first-person single take—actually several shots digitally stitched together to look like one continuous camera movement—in which our protagonist hacks, blasts, stabs, and pounds her way through dozens of nameless adversaries. It’s a brutal bloodbath made all the more disquieting by the fact that we don’t see who’s perpetrating this violence until well into the mayhem, when the camera pans out of the killer’s perspective to reveal Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), a petite young woman with a functional bob and a look of ruthless determination on her grim visage.
If Jung never quite tops that opening scene, it’s not for lack of trying. The South Korean director’s camera pans and pirouettes through a number of kinetic, inventively staged action sequences, including a sword fight between speeding motorcyclists, a knife battle inside a geisha house, and another protracted single take that tracks Sook-hee as she climbs onto the hood of a moving car, leaps onto a speeding bus and crashes through one of its windows, and slaughters some henchmen with an ax before the vehicle careens into oncoming traffic. After a while, though, Jung’s constant use of digital camera swoops and zooms to underline the action becomes a little exasperating, but for anyone who enjoys the lizard-brain delight of some expertly choreographed carnage, it’s hard to resist the filmmaker’s giddily sadistic vision. You can practically see Jung behind the camera, offering a sly little wink every time Sook-hee is blasted in the face with a spray of blood.
Told in a fractured style with numerous flashbacks and jarring cuts, the film’s overcomplicated plot is needlessly difficult to follow. Raised as an assassin by brutal gangsters, Sook-hee takes vengeance on her wards when her husband is killed on their honeymoon. After this, she’s picked up by the Korean Intelligence Agency, which strong-arms her into working for them as a sleeper agent. They give her a total makeover and a new identity as an actress, promising her that she’ll be set free if she works with them for 10 years. In the meantime, she has a child and falls in love with a kind man (Shin Ha-kyun) who, unbeknownst to Sook-hee, has been hired by the agency to spy on her. But just as she begins to achieve some level of stability for the first time in her life, her first husband seemingly returns from the dead.
Jung reportedly spent 63 of his 70-day production schedule on the film’s action scenes, leaving just a week to shoot everything else—and it shows. While Kim offers a forceful depiction of a woman whose life is dominated by forces she can’t control, the characters and plot often feel like afterthoughts. When one finally puts together the pieces of the film’s scattered narrative puzzle, The Villainess doesn’t add up to all that much beyond a slick march toward an act of bloody revenge. But by putting so many narrative obstacles in our way, Jung makes it difficult to identify with Sook-hee or even to fully understand her bloodthirsty retribution. Watching her kick some ass may be a savage pleasure, but it’s ultimately a hollow one.