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Feature


Honed from childhood into a merciless killing machine by a criminal organization, assassin Sook-hee is recruited as a sleeper agent with the promise of freedom after ten years of service – and she jumps at the chance for a normal life. But, soon enough, secrets from her past destroy everything she’s worked for and now, nobody can stand in her way as she embarks on a roaring rampage of revenge. (From Well Go USA’s official synopsis)

 Villainess, The
Movies like Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life, and Lee Jung-beom’s The Man From Nowhere have set a specific model for melancholic and technically impressive modern South Korean action movies. Jung Byung-gil’s brutal and kinetic The Villainess fits this high standard and pays homage to the Korean formula’s progenitor, Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri (1999), by shifting focus away from gruff male gangsters trying to work their way up the criminal ladder and onto a female assassin who tries to escape the ‘life,’ only to discover that she has been used by all sides of the criminal underworld. The screenplay, credited to the director and Jung Byeong-sik (no relation?), is rich with melodrama, brutal morality plays, and strange internal logic that may scare away general audiences. The rest of us can revel in this unique universe’s version of a common theme. The Nikita-esque plot isn’t particularly rewarding on its own, but Jung’s time-jumping, stream-of-conscious storytelling is well executed and told in an engaging enough way to unleash exposition. These more unusual attributes give the film a surrealistic quality that really pays off when the story slows down to focus on the characters. Still, this efficient set-up isn’t quite enough to keep The Villainess from starting to drag as it enters its second hour, just when it should be kicking into overdrive.

Jung creatively covers the stunt team’s intense action choreography and doesn’t repeat too many tricks, ensuring that each set-piece has its own feel and style. And, while he may be recycling some cinematic ideas/techniques, he’s achieving more with them than many of his big name Hollywood counterparts. The opening sequence, which apes the look and feel of a first-person video game, is a good example. I’ve seen the same thing in other movies, most notably Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry (2016), but I’ve never seen it achieved with quite so much raw abandon, nor have I ever been able to appreciate actual martial arts techniques apart from the FP gimmick (it’s also largely set in hallways, likely as an homage to Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, 2003, which featured a side-scrolling hallway fight). Jung dials back on the FP points of view, extra long tracking shots, and other technical show-offishness between action sequences to maximize their impact. It doesn’t always work (some of the most frenetic scenes must’ve been nauseating on a big cinema screen), but the ambition behind it is contagious.

 Villainess, The
Jung doesn’t have many credits to his name right now. Before Villainess, he directed a documentary that followed young, South Korean stuntmen entitled Action Boys (Korean: Woo-ri aek-syeon-bae-woo-da, 2008) and wrote/directed a serial killer action drama called Confession of Murder (2012), which was remade by Japanese filmmaker Yû Irie as Memories of a Murderer (Japanese: 22-nenme no kokuhaku: Watashi ga satsujinhan desu) in 2017. I assume that both films helped him to gain connections in the stunt and choreography communities, but there’s little English-language-friendly information available on the subject.

Video


There are no specific camera brands listed in reference to The Villainess, but Jung and cinematographer Park Jung-hun clearly shot it digitally, as apparent in the occasional smoothing/ghosting effects, the consistently plush gradations, and the hot-spots seen throughout some of the brightest highlights. Well Go USA has done a good job bringing this mix of raw and hyper-stylized imagery to 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray, which is good, because the studio can be so hit and miss. The transfer does appear somewhat soft in terms of overall detail, but there aren’t too many digital artefacts that can be directly tied to compression problems, such as edge haloes or banding. Most issues with noise, lack of clarity, and inconsistent sharpness are most likely the results of cheaper and/or smaller digital rigs and violent camera movements. These tend to match the expectations of GoPro photography, which is fine and in keeping with the film’s visual tone. Regardless of these temperamental qualities, black levels remain stable and deep, and the neon blues, greens, and reds pop nicely against the more neutral and dark backgrounds.

 Villainess, The

Audio


The Villainess comes fitted with original its Korean dialogue, as well as an English dub, both in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (there are also 2.0 Dolby options for some reason). I chose the Korean track for the sake of authenticity, though a bit of sampling verifies that the tones and volume levels of each track more or less match. The sound design isn’t quite as lively or complex as some of the bigger-budget competition, but the stereo and surround channels are regularly engaged and dynamic range plays a big role in the track’s tonal dilination. Koo Ja-wan’s score mixes techno beats, classical motifs, and full-blooded rock ‘n roll riffs. It is often the loudest element during the action sequences, especially where the big and bassy drums are concerned.

Extras


[list][*] The Action Choreography (2:36, HD) – A quick look behind-the-scenes of the action sequences.
[*] The Characters (1:42, HD) – An even shorter series of cast & crew interview clips.
[*]Teaser, trailer, and trailers for other Well Go USA releases.

 Villainess, The

Overall


The Villainess is a standout and particularly vicious entry in the South Korean action canon. Like any of the region’s recent releases, it’s a tad saggy in the middle, but its brutal action and occasionally surrealistic tone rarely overstays its welcome. The final battle is an ‘all-timer’ for certain. Well Go USA’s Blu-ray has two strong DTS-HD soundtracks and a decent transfer (the occasional blocking is probably a camera format issue, more a compression issue). The extras are expectedly sparse.

 Villainess, The

 Villainess, The

 Villainess, The
*Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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