The Villainess

A preposterous Korean martial arts film, with a loopy plot and absurd fights. The first is probably the best, starting out like an arcade shooting game before switching to first-person knives, kicks and a grim bit of garrotting for the finale. The film is very enamoured of the long-take action sequence, in which the camera whips around the protagonist as she slaughters foes by the hundred. The cuts are disguised by CGI and rapid camera turns, and a lot of it does end up looking like a particularly intense video game. But it’s something new in cinema, if a bit headache-inducing.

It’s a rather weird title (I put the Korean through google translate and got wicked or evil woman). She’s not actually a bad person, she’s more a victim of dastardly fathers, gangsters and intelligence agencies. The end of the film seems to imply that the wretched influence of all the above create a monster, and that villainy is a product of a corrupt society. There is a slightly annoying gendered dimension to this though, in that the protagonist is set down this path by being a dutiful daughter, girlfriend, wife and mother. She does a very abrupt turnaround as soon as she learns she’s pregnant, from wanting to end it all to wanting to live and protect her child. It’s almost as if the maternal instinct switches on automatically to overcome all prior trauma or depression.

For all the awesome killing she does, the protagonist has very little agency – being directed by others (mostly men) for the duration of the film. Even her boyfriend for the romcom interlude in the middle is there to manipulate her. Perhaps that’s the point, and it’s only when all the people who have ‘made’ her (as the big bad boss claims) have been dispatched can she be free to set her own course in life. Perhaps The Villainess is an ironic title. It’s the bad guys that call her a bitch. They can’t see a woman trying to escape their influence as the heroine.

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