Okay, I think it is time to truly declare South Korean cinema as the new titleholder of the action film genre.
The turning point looked to be around 2013 with Won Shin-yun’s The Suspect, a high-octane cop thriller that, for the most part, dispensed with guns in favour of fists. Now The Villainess arrives as part of the OzAsia Festival.
The film bursts onto the screen with a video-game intensity, a first-person shooter point-of-view as our yet-to-be-revealed protagonist dispatches bad guys with a variety of inventive point-blank shootings, neck-stabbings and tomahawk cleavings.
Five minutes in, and the body count leaves most action films for dead (pun intended). The action continues at a staggering pace, before a couple of verbal clues and the strategic placement of a mirror reveals our killer to be – you guessed it – a woman.
The Villainess of the title is leather-clad, blood-smeared Sook-hee (played by Kim Ok-bin).
Directed by Jung Byung-gil (his creepy 2012 hit Confession of Murder has just had a Japanese re-make), The Villainess is a cracker. While Jung doesn’t altogether do away with guns, in fact they feature a lot, there is no shortage of knife, sword and martial-arts action.
With more than a passing nod to the visual and narrative styles of Korea’s best-known director, Park Chan-wook (Stoker, The Handmaid), Jung’s opening sequences pay direct homage to Park’s legendary Old Boy (the grubby hallway, long follow and tracking shots, and even gas masks).
Kim Ok-bin also played the lead in Park’s 2009 vampire-infused Thirst, and the film’s religious iconography and camera angles play straight from the Park songbook (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and I’m a Cyborg, Get Me Out of Here).
Sook-hee’s athleticism is on show from the get go, complete with superhero stances and anime-influenced crouches all beautifully captured by some wildly inventive camerawork.
The Villainess skillfully ducks and weaves its way through a maze of agents and double-agents, with elements of romance and friendships that look doomed from the start. Stir in the vulnerability of a small (cute) child, and Sook-hee has all the desire and motivation needed to extract a bloody revenge.
An elaborate motorcycle chase, involving samurai swords and fist-fighting is a treat, and when Sook-hee decides to hitch a ride on a bus, it makes Sandra Bullock’s Speed look like a scenic tour down the Southern Expressway.
The Villainess is a full-throttle, gruesomely violent action film. There are more severed jugulars than a gratuitous vampire flick. This is filmmaking at the cutting-edge. Chalk up another win, Korea.
Villainess will screen at the Mercury Cinema on September 23 and 29 as part of the OzAsia Festival.