The Villainess, the sophomore film from South Korean director Jung Byung-gil, is loaded with ambition. So frequently I’m tasked with reviewing humdrum American blockbusters that bombard viewers with insulting lallations of tired clichés. So to experience The Villainess, a film that mutates from a bloody revenge thriller to a pithy boarding school comedy to a meet-cute domestic drama, is in essence an exercise in recalibrating expectations. But while the film offers its share of surprises, effectively keeping me on my toes throughout its runtime, it is also a film that disappointingly fails to realize the depths of its ambitions.
The film’s amateurish, anfractuous, and barely discernible plot involves Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim). The wife of a gangster kingpin, Sook-hee slays hordes of gangsters during the film’s opening sequence as retribution for her husband’s murder. She’s eventually detained by authorities of the Korean Intelligence Agency, where she becomes a product of the government to be trained as a mercenary secret agent. She trains alongside a cadre of other women, where she’s promised a life as an actress and safe passage during motherhood (confusingly, she’s notified that she’s been impregnated at the start of the film by the KIA, in what’s a strong-arm technique to get her to go along with their ambitions). She’s stripped of her agency, with every one of her actions telegraphed and manipulated by the constant surveillance of the KIA – including her relationship with Hyun-soo (Jun Sung), a young man living in her apartment building. The audience is privy to the fact that Hyun-soo works for the KIA, with his attempts to seduce Sook-hee ranging from cute to eerie. Jung affords the two actors momentarily glimpses of chemistry, though ultimately it’s all in service for the picture’s copious action sequences.
While, in theory, Jung’s rejection of narrative convention may spur a more insightful reading of The Villainess, it’s hard not to shake that the clumsiness of the whole project. It comes across as the film of a madcap genius without the working knowledge of how to realize that vision. Case in point, the film’s action sequences are fundamentally intriguing ideas that are spatially visually ghastly. The much-lauded first person action sequence that opens the film is digitized to oblivion, while other sequences are choppily edited or provide absolutely no working sense of the geography of their milieu. You’re frequently lost in between rapid edits and clumsy choreography that your eyes quickly begin to glaze over as you attempt to discern what going throughout this quote unquote mayhem. There are components to The Villainess to admire, but they’re all theoretical, leaving one to question exactly what Jung can realize.