The Villainess (Aknyeo)

Byung-gil Jung (director), Jung-hun Park (cinematographer), Sun-mi Heo (editor)
Ok-bin Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, Jun Sung, Seo-hyeong Kim (cast)
Released September 8, 2017 (USA), September 12, 2017 (Vancouver)

Lethal women given a second lease on life figure prominently in the action thriller genre. Sometimes the women play major supporting roles in these films. Other times, as demonstrated by the iconic La Femme Nikita, they form the basis of the entire story. As suggested by its similarly structured heroine-referring English-language title, The Villainess falls into the second category.

Given the pervasiveness of the avenging female assassin in cinema, The Villainess has a difficult job offering something new. The assassin is betrayed. The assassin loses someone dear to her. The assassin tries to build a new life. The assassin’s new life falls apart. The assassin seeks revenge. The assassin discovers everything she thought she knew is a lie. All these pieces are present in The Villainess, although perhaps shuffled and stitched together in a way that seems fresh when paired with awe-inspiring violence.

And make no mistake: the action scenes are the heart and highlight of The Villainess. Its dizzying opening draws comparisons to first-person shooter video games, forcing us into the role of anti-heroine Sook-hee. It’s a bold choice, given how many people dislike the use of shaky cam, but the ensuing bloodbath both cements Sook-hee’s terrifying competence and prepares us for the stunning violence to come.

The other action scenes are equally as memorable. From a high-speed sword fight on motorcycles to a desperate duel in a house of ill repute which utilizes a stark white palette as its backdrop—the better to showcase the bloody sprays—the visuals are what remain in our minds long after the movie’s closing credits have finished. Even the picture of a beautiful bride assembling a sniper rifle in a bathroom lingers more than the film’s at-best average plot.

What plagues The Villainess, however, is not its well-trodden plot lines. Many movies use tropes to great effect. The Villainess‘ weakness rests in the fact that it features too many familiar storylines at once without focusing in on any. Do we angst over the burgeoning relationship between Sook-hee and Jung Hyun-soo, knowing that Hyun-soo is the agent sent to watch over her without her knowledge? Do we concentrate on Sook-hee’s traumatic backstory that centers around her father’s murder? What about her relationship with savior/mentor/lover Lee Joong-sang? Are we meant to accept their story as one of doomed lovers, or are we supposed to take it as one of illusions and lies? And are we going to discuss the inherent creepiness of an adult Joong-sang taking the child Sook-hee under his wing, remaking her into a ruthless killer, and then having sex with her?

The Villainess raises many questions and offers many muddled answers. Because of the unfocused plot made up of familiar parts, we can’t help but fixate on the violence. More’s the pity because the movie offers other stunning visuals outside of its action set pieces. Take, for instance, the center where Sook-hee is taken after the movie’s hard-hitting opening leaves her in the clutches of a secret agency. Dedicated to training women into sleeper agents, the film presents an array of funhouse-like rooms where female assassins learn skills to strengthen their cover stories: a room filled with women learning how to cook, a room filled with ballerinas, a stage where actresses rehearse. If anything, the camera work found in these scenes, along with the action sequences, further emphasizes the mundaneness of the storylines involving Sook-hee and the men in her life.

And indeed, it is her relationships with men that take precedence and garner emotional weight. Here, especially, The Villainess fails its female characters, considering that it is a movie about a female assassin who works for a female-headed secret agency that employs female sleeper agents. Perhaps if the movie had delved into the contentious relationship between Sook-hee and agency head Kwon-sook, we could have seen an exploration about the coercion of female skills and power. Perhaps if the intense rivalry between Sook-hee and Kim Sun had been expanded, we could have seen something different. Indeed, if we’d seen any of the relationships—both friendly and otherwise—with the other sleeper agents in more detail, The Villainess could have offered something less familiar and cliché.

Despite its structural weaknesses, The Villainess is sure to inspire an entire host of thrillers with its unflinching violence and fascinating use of camera. And perhaps that is the answer to enjoying this movie. Don’t expect anything new, plot-wise. Ignore the fact that a simple, straightforward storyline would have served this movie better. Instead, sit back and enjoy the violence.