Friday 15 September 2017

She's bad: "The Villainess"

For some while now, it's appeared as though Korean directors have been engaged in a game of bloody one-upmanship, as if fees were directly linked to body counts. The wholly brazen opening sequence of this week's The Villainess finds writer-director Byung-gil Jung topping his compatriot Chan-wook Park's much-celebrated/dissected corridor fight in 2003's OldBoy by shooting all his action in the first-person perspective. Once our fighter-in-chief has felled enough foes with gun, knife and handaxe to reach the end of the corridor, they're followed up to the next floor and a second corridor bristling with bodies; having taken all these out, the camera passes through a door into a gym stocked deep with even more ne'er-do-wells standing round just waiting to be eviscerated. But wait! By way of what we must now call a "Smack My Bitch Up" twist, our warrior passes before a wall-length mirror amid the brouhaha, whereupon it is revealed to us - ta-da! - that the individual responsible for this thunderously thrilling carnage is no hulking he-man, rather a tiny yet determined lady (Ok-bin Kim, the Thérèse Raquin of Park's 2009 film Thirst) in vengeful search of those responsible for her father's death. Hell hath no fury, and all that. 

The obvious peril would be that what follows fails to live up to such an electrifying first movement, but it transpires that Jung has many other tricks up his sleeve. For one thing, our heroine Sook-hee turns out to be an alumna of an elite finishing school - a Hogwarts with heavy artillery - where aspirant assassins are schooled not just in shooting and stabbing, but also the finer arts (acting, cooking) that might heighten reflexes, judgement, camouflage capabilities. As she passes into the wider world to continue her murderous quest, it becomes clear Jung intends to use his heavily storyboarded kill scenes as kinetic doodles, repositories of big, bold, unarguably cinematic, invariably winning ideas: strapping the camera to a blade during a swordfight (and doing so in such a way as not to obscure the physical geography of the sequence), setting motorbikes to duel with one another through traffic at high speed in seemingly unbroken takes, everything building towards a frankly insane final dust-up aboard a coach flying along the highway with its doors agape.

This exceptional fluidity of movement applies to the storytelling, too: Jung is loose and flexible about his exposition, running scenes from different timelines back to back without onscreen prompts in a manner that alerts us to a) the impact of the heroine's past on her present-day thoughts and deeds, and b) the possibility that these thoughts and deeds will themselves have an impact on future narrative events. Sook-hee finds one hit complicated when her target's young daughter walks into the room; this in turn sparks a flashback that reveals the details of her own childhood trauma. With the stakes of this game established, Jung can even turn his hand to something a shade calmer and more romantic in his middle act, as our heroine draws closer to the friendly neighbour (Jun Sung) who - unbeknownst to her - is actually the handler assigned to keep an eye on her. Thus does The Villainess broach that very contemporary concern, the double life. Our would-be lovers engage in at least one conversation about the matter of trust - probably a wise move, given that their shared alma mater offers classes in disguising one's accent to fit in when on assignment.

While composing dynamic, big-picture setpieces in his head, Jung doesn't overlook his performers, nor does he reduce them to crash-test dummies. Instead, he works closely with both Kim and Sung to shape and detail characters tentatively letting down the guards put up during those first bouts of carnage. Kim, all pinched cheeks and pursed lips, gives a notable performance-within-a-performance, evidently holding in some secret wrong that needs righting, yet the shock is no less explosive when it all comes out. (That opening eruption of violence assumes a deeper meaning when revisited through the prism of the following two hours: like almost all the action here, it's not as senseless as it might first seem.) If it's finally all manoeuvres - never quite matching the melancholy emotional charge Park wrung out of the vengeance of OldBoy - they're very skilfully executed: this, perhaps, is what the Kingsmen movies would look like if they had more than a couple of brain cells to rub together, and weren't exclusively interested in strongarming disposable income from gullible teenage boys.

The Villainess opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on October 30. 

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