The Villainess

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The Villainess, this new film to have come from South Korea via Cannes, has a basic premise that you’ve probably heard before. A young woman is picked up and sent to a school for female assassins where she becomes a spectacularly success student. On her release into the world though she discovers she doesn’t have quite the taste for the jobs she is being given. 

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It’s Nikita (and its American remake), it’s the Chinese film The Assassin, it’s the back story of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and it seems to be the plot of the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence film Red Sparrow. It also throws in a revenge element that gives it heavy shades of Kill Bill. The title seems to have lost something in translation too. The movie is called Ak Nyeo in its country of origin which seems to approximately translate as Are You a Good Girl?. You can see why they didn’t go with that but The Villainess just makes it sound all the more like a B-movie and all the more generic. 

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If you think you’ve seen it all before though I will tell you right now, you haven’t. If you are a fan of action cinema then The Villainess is absolutely essential viewing. It is not often you get something genuinely new with this genre but director Jung Byung-gil has created something staggeringly original. It’s like the first time we saw Enter the Dragon, early John Woo, The Matrix or the Bourne trilogy. The bar has been reset and despite taking many of its story ideas from other films, The Villainess stands to be something truly influential. 

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It doesn’t make you wait for it either. The first seven minutes of this film are genuinely breathtaking. You know how the opening scene of La La Land had the camera taking part in the dance, caught up right in the middle of everything, swooping around as much as the primary colour clothed performers? Well The Villainess throws its audience right in the middle of the fight in the same way. This is no joyous parade of leaps and spins though, it is a gritty and bloody and dangerous punch up/shoot out and it is all happening in your face in unrelenting close up. The film Hardcore Henry used first person point of view action a couple of years ago (now that’s a terrible title) but it over used it. The Villainess employs a similar trick but knows when to stop using this tool and how to complement it with other equally bravura camera angles. It’s not a gimmick here, it is the glue that binds the viewer to this exhilarating film experience. Then a little later when you think there will be nothing in the film to quite equal its amazing opening moments they do the whole thing again on motorbikes.

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Of course if visceral action was all the film had then it would be unrelenting and exhausting. It is the movie’s ace card but it knows when to play it and when to hold back. Woven in between is an intriguing narrative and strong characterisation. Kim Ok-bin’s Sook-hee is a compelling lead who commits to the emotion as much as the punching, shooting and sword play. She has motivations not commonly seen in this type of film and while there is one scene in which she poses as prostitute the objectification and sexist tropes often attached to this type of female hero are avoided. The film also has time for a touching if irregular romance, it goes to surprising places in the last half an hour and it all comes together for one final almighty scrap at the end.

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The Villainess is in select cinemas and on demand now.

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