Friday 29 December 2017

The Villainess (aka Ak-Nyeo)

Trouble And Strife

The Villainess (aka Ak-Nyeo)
South Korea 2017
Directed by Byung-gil Jung  
Arrow Video Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Very mild spoilers about action content,
if you consider such a thing a spoiler.

The Villainess is a brand new action movie by Byung-gil Jung which, apparently, received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. Having now seen it after the absolutely pitiful cinema release it got here in the UK I can certainly see why (if you were lucky enough to catch a 'blink and you’ll miss it' screening then well done to you). It’s a frenetically choreographed action revenge movie of the sort which has become fashionable over the last decade or so and technically it’s brilliant. Matched with some truly astonishing camerawork and some sound editing which really doesn’t obscure the communication of what’s going on in a sequence (some directors are just not good at this, these days) the film is a real visually kinetic tour de force which is both exciting but which also brings in some good character writing and spot on performances from the various leads.

The film opens with a quite violent, visceral action sequence as the main protagonist Sook-hee, played by the lovely and, as it turns out, extraordinarily capable Ok-bin Kim takes out a whole building full of criminal thugs in various locations on her route to the man in charge. The action starts on a very long, protracted single sequence through the building shot in a first person point of view mode, just like if you were playing a video game like Doom or Duke Nuke ‘Em and the creative stunt work is full-on right from the outset. While the arterial spray of the various people that Sook-hee stabs, shoots, kicks, punches and slices up are not at 1970s Japanese levels of ‘ nonsensically over-the-top fountaining claret’ there is a fair amount of splashing blood and gore in this first sequence which sets up the tone for the rest of the film. There's just loads of violent action in the movie and its all punctuated with some somewhat satisfying viscera for fans of that kind of action.

Somewhere near the end of this astonishing opening sequence, once you may have asked yourself, just like I did, how the heck the camera could actually get in and out of the sturdily choreographed violence in such a manner, the main protagonist (aka, the camera at this point), is smashed head first into a mirror and its as we see the reflection that we catch sight of actress Ok-bin’s face for the first time. As if the delivery method of the footage has somehow been disabled by this jolt, the film then continues from that moment on in a more traditional, third person point of view style narrative... as we see Sook-hee finish off the last of the, 'must be more than fifty', antagonists by killing the boss of the gang... strangling him with a chord wrapped around his throat as she smashes through a window onto street level. It’s there that the character’s journey begins to be defined in the narrative as she is arrested by the police and taken away.

After this, she is recruited against her will by a top secret, government cell of trained killers and it wasn’t long before I realised that the elephant in the room which none of the marketing or publicity for the film had emphasised or even identified (as far as I could see) became fairly self evident. That The Villainess is, more or less, a remake or reboot (or whatever the hell you want to call it these days) of Luc Besson’s outstanding movie Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita). Where it differs from that one is by giving the main character a vengeful back story and a lot of deception and extra skullduggery on top of the same basic structure, with lots of flashbacks and twists and turns which brings the central character right back to the heart of what she originally set out to do, take revenge on her father’s killer. However, the way it’s done here is through a quite complex set of reveals and a veil in the form of the same kind of plastic surgery which Sook-hee is given when she is ‘recruited’.

Now, I absolutely love Besson’s Nikita and that movie is never going to be topped in terms of similarly themed tales, I think. However, there have also been a fair few remakes and retreads of Nikita and, of the ones I’ve seen (mostly in the form of Asian remakes or homages), this one is by far the best and most engaging... and it has a hell of a lot more action to it, for sure. While, I feel, the writers has tried their best to distract from what I personally believe is an ‘homage’ to Besson’s classic, they have also snuck in a fair few little visual references and echoes of the original in the form of sequences like a sniper’s disassembled rifle hidden in the toilet and ready to be used by the central protagonist because the room’s been set up to give her a window for a target (in this case, the minute or so of required bullet play comes up during the character’s marriage)... or a shoot out with a group of bad guys in a kitchen.

That being said, the amount of levels of flashbacks to different points in the central characters life and the way the agenda of both the agency and the lead villain, make this film a fresh and more complex riff on a familiar theme and it does manage to present the audience with a unique experience which delivers on its own terms as well as being an action fest inspired, at least in part, to the French classic.

Added to all this, the film is beautifully designed too, with some stunning colour palettes and some lovely shot compositions. For instance, there’s a flashback scene where Sook-hee finds out her husband has been killed, where he and a colleague are standing looking at his badly mutilated corpse in the back of a car. We then cut to a shot of a road with the silhouette of a bridge going diagonally across from left to right with a central strut of the bridge splitting the frame vertically. The neon glow of the lighting on the street shining through the two rectangles created by that dark vertical, with the two characters and the car in the right hand rectangle and with the street in the left hand shape empty. Such a lovely frame in a movie which is full of cool stuff like this. The audience also, by this point in the proceedings, knows that the very next sequence following this, before we cut back to the present plot, would have been the opening slaughter of the gang in the building.

In addition, the editing in this thing is, as I said, quite amazing and one is just left to wonder, as I commented on the opening sequence, just how the camera could actually get in and film all this fast moving carnage in the first place. There’s another incredible scene which is basically a motor bike chase/high speed sword fight with the camera weaving in and out, getting up close and personal with all the main action points while somehow not getting totalled by flying bikes (or people) which makes you wonder just how long that sequence took to shoot.

All in all, if you are a fan of female lead action/revenge thrillers and you want to see some incredible stunt work and, as it happens, some nice character work from a bunch of great actors, then The Villainess definitely comes heartily recommended. The only thing I was left wondering at the end was... why the heck was it called The Villainess? Certainly, since the main protagonist is far from a villain, I couldn’t really identify anyone else in the tale who would somehow match that description.

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