The Villainess (2017) Review : 악녀 Korean Movie

Starring Kim Okbin, Shin Hakyun, Kim Seohyung, and Sung Joon 

Audio version

Was it Pablo Picasso who said “Good artists copy; great artists steal”?
It is a commonly knownn quote but what is really the difference between the two terms?; copying and stealing.

Let’s use the director of “Pulp fiction” (1994) for illustration. Director Quentin Tarantino has a career that exemplifies this quote. He steals from film makers of the past like a Crazy Bandit. It is so relentlessly and without shame. It is not like he does it in a subtle manner for only those who know cinema history to notice. His way is much more in your face. However, somehow he ends up creating unique cinema experiences that last the test of time. Not once or twice but over and over. His movies are not only good with a surprising degree of consistency but are very uniquely his. He stole from the masters and ended up owning what he stole. This is not the result of luck. This is not an easy thing to do which is exemplified by the bodies of film makers lying bleeding who have tried to follow in his footsteps resulting from figurative contact with the blade of the bride from “Kill Bill Vol 1.” (2003). No one is Quentin Tarantino!

Why is this so? Why is this so difficult?

The thing is that, if you remove all the references, homages, and cinephile nerding out displayed in a Quentin Tarantino movie, the movie is still a great unique movie. Quentin Tarantino is still a great storyteller. He has specific themes and topics he is interested in. In order to tell stories that deal with his interests, he wraps all the stuff he stole from masters of cinema around detailed characters played by talented actors and uses tasty dialogue that only he can write to tie an attractive bow on the cinematic “Christmas gift”. That combination is what makes Quentin Tarantino a great film maker. Stealing stuff is not the core of his talents. The stuff he stole put on screen is, at the end of the day, a reflection of his tastes, personality, and quirks like all other artists do. He is merely honest and blunt on how he developed those parts of himself. People tend to forget this fact when watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. Overall, making a movie like Quentin Tarantino is attempting to manage this balancing act and this is why many of his imitators have failed.

Those of you lucky enough to still have their lives, take them with you! However, leave the limbs you've lost. They belong to me now
--- from “Kill Bill Vol 1.” (2003)

So, why am I talking about Quentin Tarantino in a Korean movie review? “The Villainess” (2017) starring Kim Okbin, Shin Hakyun, Kim Seohyung, and Sung Joon is one of the bodies lying in a pool of blood after the bride did her thing wearing a yellow jumpsuit. It is many familiar movies in one but ends up not being a great single movie.

The Plot
“The Villainess” (2017) or “악녀” is a story about a young woman of the “normal” criminal underworld kind played by actress Kim Okbin getting swept up into the world of government espionage to find it more shadowy…


Let’s us not beat around the bush. The plot of “The Villainess” (2017) is nothing special although the movie tries to convince itself it is by using way too many flashbacks and concealing character information until later to try to be all dramatic. The movie is firmly placed within the genre of movies I would call “Lady assassin” movies of which “La Femme Nikita” (1990) by Luc Besson is one of the more prominent examples. This genre is a mix of “Girls with guns” movie genre that came out of the Hong Kong in the 80s and noir/espionage movies of the west. When I say “placed”, I mean cliché!

A cliche is a cliche because it works
by Feige Gornish

The plot of “The Villainess” (2017) is basically “La Femme Nikita” (1990) which should not be too surprising as this genre is basically filled with Nikita clones. They have protagonists who are not in a great situation initially be made into spies. Then, they are made to take secret identities that give them a taste of normal life and sometimes romance. This clash of worlds create conflict. “The Villainess” (2017) does the exact same thing. What is unique about the story part of this movie is combination of a few things that really represent the nature of this movie as a whole. First, it has the story structure of “Batman Begins” (2005). It even borrows its antagonist architype from that “Batty” movie too. Second, the back bone of the character journey is a sweet Korean melodrama romance. It is so sweet that the movie inadvertently almost feels like a meta commentary on the Korean romance genre. However, that is more of an unintended consequence than intentional. Third, it also has the over the top expression of violence and revenge of “Kill Bill Vol 1.” (2003) sprinkled in here and there mostly in the first and final acts. All these don’t come together well.

No, they're never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. Which is why we have an impartial system.
--- from “Batman Begins” (2005)

Failing to Steal Stories
From what I just noted, you may get the impression the story of the “The Villainess” (2017) is a collection of “copied” elements from sources that contradict each other. And you would have hit on the nature of this movie.

It is not that hard to find movies out of the “Lady assassin” genre to be part romance movie. Romance seems to be a favorite motivation for those ladies with guns and swords. This is especially true for those made in Asia. And there are ways of creating a balance between the romance and the bloody gun parts usually by toning down the cynical noir tone of the movie. “The Villainess” (2017) has a problem here since the too sweet romance and the “Kill Bill Vol 1.” (2003) influenced gun totting and sword wielding part of movie clash with each other. More accurately the latter over taxes the former. In addition, the “Batman Begins” (2005) influences doesn’t mesh well with the other influences and results in the story and the character developments feeling under developed and isolated from the rest of the plot. This is especially true for the villain played by Shin Hakyun who isn’t in the movie nearly enough for what the movie needs his character to do. Also, he is no Liam Neeson. The result is that the narrative drive of the movie falls flat.

The resulting movie thus has a serious problem. I know it wanted to be part “La Femme Nikita” (1990) clone, part Korean romance movie, part action hero movie, and part “Kill Bill” vengeance movie. However, I’m not sure at the end what the main point I was meant to get from this movie. For example, why is the title of the movie “The Villainess” (2017)? As a side note, the tonally appropriate translation of the title would be “the Evil bitch”? I’d prefer that one. Back to the point, the title doesn’t suit the sweet and tragic protagonist. She isn’t a bitch. The bride from “Kill Bill Vol 1.” (2003) was far more of a bitch than her. Also why is the last scene of the movie a zoom in on an unsettling smile? What was its meaning?

You have to remember this movie is not deep nor really surreal even though it pretends to be once or twice during its run time. Just having some a scene or two have surreal art design and the protagonist delivering monologues in plays within the movie doesn’t make this movie deep. Thus, we should not be pondering its point after the curtains come down. It doesn’t have to be something elaborate as it is not that kind of movie but the main thesis of the movie should at least be just concrete and straightforward.

Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.
--- by John Dewey

All this is because the different story elements don’t mess well together and thus the narrative drive is not well established. Parts of the movie is a too sweet romance. Other parts try to be somewhat dark and serious but forget the fact the movie is silly in parts. The female protagonist is even worse at being a covert secret agent than the great James Bond (007). She either gets the info but makes a huge mess or fails and get people killed. Once you put your thinking hat on, the movie feels far too convoluted but not in a fun way. So, no part really drives the narrative. They just react and thus the movie feels hollow at the end.

Failing to Steal like your life depended on it!
The biggest issue with “The Villainess” (2017) is that this failure to steal properly is not just limited to the story. It is also mirrored in the aspect of this movie that really counts. What is that?

Do you want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.
--- by Thomas Jefferson

If you are going to take something from “The Villainess” (2017), it will not be the story. It won’t be the cast and their performances even though they are decent. Korean actress Kim Okbin can get away with all of the physical stunts and there is nothing disturbing about her acting. However, I really cannot remember much of her character or even how she looks when writing this review. She is no Uma Thurman of “Kill Bill Vol 1.” (2003) or Anne Parillaud of “La Femme Nikita” (1990). The important aspects of the movie that should be written in neon on top of the marquee are the action set pieces! They are why this movie was made. “The Villainess” (2017) is that kind of movie! The story is really just a frame to prop up the action set pieces. And you can make that work if the frame was just even adequate; basic but adequate. Keep the story minimal and blend its tone and style of the action well. A consistent pace between set pieces also helps. It is a shame that “The Villainess” (2017) doesn’t seem to get it.

In many ways, “The Villainess” (2017) feels like an action director’s self-promotional demo reel. The movie tries to mimic action set pieces from vastly different movies of varying styles. What kind do I mean? You have the first person “video game” perspective style action from “Hardcore Henry” (2015). You have samurai sword battles and motorcycle chase from “Kill Bill Vol 1.” (2003). You have the close quarters fighting of “Batman Begins” (2005). You have the sniper action of movies such as “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” (2015) and etc.

Many Korean directors have inferiority complexes regarding their Hollywood counterparts especially action directors. Thus, they try to prove themselves with far less resources and experience to varying degrees of success. This is pretty obvious with the action set pieces in “The Villainess” (2017). You can see a lot of effort was put into trying to pull off some outlandish set pieces with limited resources. This is commendable and the results are quite positive. The most impressive thing about these action scenes is the camera work which has the camera frantically moving and chasing the action through impossibly confined areas. I imagine a lot of Go-Pro mini cameras and drones were used to pull those sweet moves off. However, things are not all swell. There are issues. One is that, because the camera moves too much, the punches and headshots lack visceral impact. Another is that the action choreography isn’t great since the movie leans heavily on the camera movements to make the action interesting than the actual action choreography.

The biggest problem with the action is that the director went overboard in trying to prove he can mimic action set pieces from other movies. He seems to have forgotten  --- this approach was also seen in the movie’s story --- that action set pieces have to serve a function within the story or at least have a similar consistent style and tone. For example, why does this movie need a first person video game style scene? I know it can look cool but it serves no real story function and is only used once while being drastically different from the rest of the movie. At least “Hardcore Henry” (2015) was consistent. Since “The Villainess” (2017) is borrowing from so many disparate sources, all the different action set pieces feel like different movies.

War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory.
--- By Georges Clemenceau

After the bloodshed
At the end of the day, “The Villainess” (2017) is a movie that fails to properly steal from other movies. The resulting product comes off part as a “La Femme Nikita” (1990) clone and part 2 hour and 9 minute demo reel for a promising but not 100% ready for the prime time director. The flashy hardcore action set pieces don’t really serve the sweet romance story nor the melodrama. At the same time, the action set pieces cannot really be stitched together as a separate narrative even in a rudimentary fashion.

However, it’s not a total waste of time. There are some interesting action set pieces and actress Kim Seohyung playing the government overseer of the spy program and  Shin Ha‑kyunwho is the villain of the movie give memorable performances even though their characters are underserved by the movie. Even Korean actor Sung Joon of mostly Korean drama fame such as “High Society” (SBS, 2015) gives okay performances. So… while you will feel somewhat empty from the experience after leaving the theater, you won’t be running on empty. That is something.

Video Review


Post a Comment