Director Jung Byung-gil insists that “The Villainess” was made without any reference to preexisting films; that all of its gonzo action was hatched directly from his own demented imagination (with assists from stunt coordinator Kwon Gui-duck and cinematographer Park Jung-hun). And yet the very first scene of the movie busts out of the gate like a female-driven remake of “Hardcore Henry,” Jung immediately launching us into a prolonged first-person sequence in which our avatar slaughters dozens of men in a dingy crystal meth lab. Imagine the hallway fight from “Oldboy,” but three times as long and incalculably more violent (eek, another reference).
This woman murders everybody, fighting them all at least two at a time and leaving no survivors. We know that she’s invincible before we even see her face, and that leaves Jung and fellow screenwriter Byeong-sik Jung with a bit of a problem: They have 120 minutes left to kill with an action heroine who can’t be hurt, and so they’re left with no choice but to devise some other vulnerabilities for her. Doing so requires a backstory so convoluted that eventually you start to forget that you’re just watching a knotted riff on “La femme Nikita.”
If “The Villainess” sounds like derivative junk, that’s because it is — but rarely is derivative junk executed with such panache and personality. Kim Ok-bin, who spills even more blood here than she did in “Thirst,” stars as Sook-hee, who is eventually captured after her rampage and imprisoned in a mysterious underground facility. Waking up to find that Korea’s finest plastic surgeons have given her a beautiful new face, Sook-hee discovers that she’s the newest recruit at a top secret training center for government assassins. It’s not like she needs anyone to teach her how to take a life, but there’s a lot more to it than that. At this school, the girls are taught a vocation that suits their individual talents so they can be reinserted into society as sleeper agents. Sook-hee becomes an actress, a natural fit for anyone preparing to assume a new identity.
Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple for Sook-hee. For one thing, she’s pregnant with her dead husband’s baby when we meet her, and still a bit shaken up that he was killed on their honeymoon. For another, the babyfaced charmer who lives in Sook-hee 2.0’s apartment building is actually keeping tabs on her for the Korean Intelligence Agency. But things don’t really get twisted for our girl until she starts to suspect that her dead spouse may not be so dead after all.
“The Villainess” doesn’t have a particularly interesting story to tell, a fact it tries to obscure by fracturing that story in any number of uninteresting ways. The chronology is needlessly jumbled from the start so that it becomes difficult to determine where we are at any point in time, or which part of Sook-hee’s life is meant to be her present. It soon becomes downright impossible to care. And if you do bother to figure out how all of the piece fit together, the film rewards your diligence by muddying the waters even further, slipping into the recesses of Sook-hee’s memory in order to crack open her deep-seated daddy issues.
But Byung’s inability to string together a coherent narrative is nearly offset by his gift for staging some bonkers scenes of death and destruction. It’s amazing how quickly a movie can spark back to life when a woman in a wedding dress fishes a sniper rifle from the filter of a restaurant toilet Michael Corleone style and starts shooting off someone’s sunglasses from half a mile away.
The magic is in the details, like the way that Sook-hee hits the people around her target so they fall over and give her a cleaner view. There’s an incredible motorcycle fight in there, even if it’s hard to say who’s fighting. And then there’s the climactic car chase that starts with a car crash and builds to some passenger seat ballet that’s on par with the best of “Baby Driver.” Kim is so fierce in the lead role that it’s almost possible to forgive the flurry of CG zooms that are used to add some kapow to her punches and Frankenstein her finest moments into wholly unbelievable long-takes. Kim doesn’t need the help; she’s plenty strong enough to hold our attention, and she’s working overtime to salvage something real from underneath all this mess.
“We cannot exist in the same space,” Sook-hee says to herself in one of her glitzy stage roles. “So long as you’re alive, I cannot live.” It may be hard to tell where one of identities ends and the other begins — not even she can sort that out — but it’s increasingly clear that both parts can’t exist at the same time. She can’t start a new life while her old one is still going. She’s her own worst enemy, the perfect self-defeating villainess for a movie that can’t stop shooting itself in the foot.
“The Villainess” opened Fantasia Fest this week and will have its U.S. premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival on Sunday. It opens in theaters on August 25.