Crazy bloodfest

The Villainess

Directed by Jung Byung-gil

Written by Jung Byeong-sik and Jung Byung-gil

122 minutes, rated R

3.5 stars

The Villainess is a high-octane Korean thriller about a young woman who’s a killing machine. If assassination were an Olympic sport, she’d be Usain Bolt. She also becomes a mother, an actress, a gangster’s wife, a spy and someone who can ride a motorcycle at top speed while flailing a sword against similarly talented opponents. There is nothing Sook-hee can’t do – except have a happy life. She tries to work out who killed her father, so that she can avenge him and settle down as mother of a cute baby girl.

The film begins with an eight-minute sequence that other film-makers in the bloodier genres will study frame by frame. It’s shot as if we’re in a computer game – specifically a first-person shooter game, where all that we see of the assassin is her arms (of both sorts) on either side of the frame as she blasts her way into a gangster lair to face 100 guys in surgical face-masks and identical suits. When she has shot all of those, she reaches a new level – where colourful fat guys with no shirts take her on with knives. The acrobatic camerawork of this first few minutes is hard to believe. The camera swings in and out of places it seems impossible to go – which suggests some, maybe a lot, of it is CGI. It’s so fast that it’s hard to tell.

This kind of ultra-violence seems very Korean. In the last 20 years, as their cinema has become more influential, it has also become more extreme. It’s not hard to read The Villainess as a series of metaphors about the country that has never quite recovered from the civil war of the 1950’s. A woman cradling her dying husband and child on a road, shrieking to the heavens – this could be an image from that war. The pain in Korean films always seems to lead back to this conflict – hardly surprising, given that it tore the country in two.

We also see this in the convoluted plot, in which spying, double-dealing and infiltration are the norm. Did I say convoluted? That’s too soft a word for this plot. I suspect not even the writers could explain it. Sook-hee (played as an adult by the gorgeous and talented Kim Ok-bin) becomes a recruit of the Korean Intelligence agency. She’s already a killer. Having witnessed her father’s death she has been adopted into a criminal gang led by the charismatic Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun). Indeed, she marries him as a teenager, and arrives at the spy agency’s academy for young female assassins carrying his child. Her supervisor, the ice-maiden Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) offers her a deal – work for us for ten years and you can have your normal life. Yeah, sure.

The violence is cartoonish but graphic – or cartoonishly graphic. Geysers of blood; the heroine regularly gets painted in gore. It is operatic, millennial, end-of-days stuff. Director Jung Byung-gil borrows from a million sources – Japanese gangster pictures, manga, Tarantino – then takes things further than anyone has. The action sequences are simply astonishing. I have never seen camerawork like it. I’m not sure how it was done, but the spectacle is bold. The plot is more like a plate of spaghetti, where everyone has a knife, a gun (or seven) or an axe. It’s absolutely nutty, if bloody, fun.