The film, the second feature directed by Jung Byung-gil, and enough of an exemplar of the current state of South Korean action cinema that it snagged a non-competitive berth at Cannes in 2017, is basically a tale of revenge. Who's getting revenge on whom changes. The protagonist, however, is always a particular woman who goes by different names, though the one that she was born with is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin). The point at which you need diagrams to keep the plot straight happens damned early, but suffice it to say that Sook-hee was raised from a child (possibly by the Chinese government? Or at least by a Chinese paramilitary group) to be a perfect assassin, and has since grown up to be recruited - "conscripted" is at least as good a word - by a South Korean intelligence agency. So The Villainess gets to have the best of a spy thriller and the best of an assassin thriller at one and the same time, assuming we can fairly draw a clear dividing line between those branches.
And there's a third, much more clearly distinguishable branch: this is also an art film. I mean that in only the most perfectly ordinary sense: this is a movie obsessively concerned with the mental and emotional depths of its lead character and only incidentally with what she does, and so we must say that it is more psychology-driven than narrative-driven. And if there is indeed a problem with The Villainess, this is what causes it. The script (co-written by the director and by Jung Byeong-sik) elects to dig into Sook-hee's motivations and her overall feelings about the blood-soaked paths she walks on through an unusually difficult network of flashbacks and callbacks, and that within a film that doesn't itself follow one strict chronological line for its A-plot from which the flashbacks spring. I'm relatively confident in suggesting that this isn't mere petty obscurantism; Jung and Jung do seem to have a very clear intention for how this is all meant to work in one intuitive flow, with Sook-hee's history being doled out to us in an order and at times that always meaningfully reflect how her past informs her present. Not in general terms, the way all of our pasts inform all of our presents, but the very specific aspect of past that informs this current present moment, right now.
One result is a film with a curious and apparently intentional arrhythmia; there's no real flow here of any kind, lest it be the pure flow of momentum in the ebb and flow of fight scenes. I feel like I should be a bit more enthusiastic about this, and my expectation and hope is that when I see The Villainess a second time, this will all click into place more naturally than it did when I was watching. As it is, it's a movie whose plot takes some real effort to keep straight, and while this is not generally a problem for action movies, The Villainess is quite obviously proud of itself as a character study, and eager to make sure that it foregrounds Sook-hee's personal tragedies and the violent revenge those tragedies fueled.
Regardless of that, the worst-case scenario is that this is an action film with a character arc that's presented unnecessarily confusingly, but which doestn't detract from the action. All the best-case scenarios involve some variation on The Villainess having some of the very best action setpieces of 2017, and wouldn't you just look at that...
It's not merely that the action is superb in this movie; it's superb without ever repeating itself, and that's all the more impressive because there is a whole fucking lot of it. Between themselves, Jung, cinematographer Park Jung-hun, and stunt coordinator Kwon Gui-duck have arranged a great many variations on a few themes, starting with the most unabashedly gimmicky: the film opens with a synthetic long take in first person, as Sook-hee plows through a hallway and room full of expendable bad guys, without our ever getting a good look at whose body we're inhabiting until one goon shoves here face in a mirror - the exact point at which the camera decouples from her POV. These elaborate camera moves remain a reliable tool for the filmmakers throughout, not always to the film's benefit; it's pretty easy to spot the cuts, which haven't been digitally melted together as perfectly as one might want. And if I'm griping, I might as well point out that Park sometimes uses wider lenses than I care for, giving the action a warping quality.
But, dear Lord, let's not be assholes about such things! The Villainess is an amazing achievement in action movement, lighting, costume design, and framing, whether in the most elaborate, showy gyrating movements, or a downright stately shot where Sook-hee, in a bridal gown, strikes an elegant pose against a mirror as she points a sniper rifle through a ventilation shaft. The broad purpose is the same in all cases: to draw our attention to admire the control Kim exerts over her body, which is after all the film's primary storytelling vehicle, given how much of it is entirely about the complicated action scenes Kim is dropped into.
It is, long story short, an incredibly gorgeous film, and a film that has some truly magnificent fight choreography along the way (not always treated to best effect by the rest of the filmmaking. It is, in its way, a pure action film, designed solely for the pleasure of movement through space, the violence that ensues - this is a gory movie, no two ways about it - and the shifting values of light that accentuate both the movement and violence. It's even more invested in aesthetics, in this regard, than something like John Wick or Atomic Blonde, works apparently springing from the same international Zeitgeist. But let me never become jaded by pure genre exercises done with such ambition and style, and if The Villainess doesn't hit the status of instant modern classic, like those two, it still comfortable becomes must-see cinema for anyone who cares about the increasingly exciting state of action cinema in the 2010s.