'The Villainess' Review: Say Hello To The Newest Evolution Of Action

This review originally ran during our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival. The Villainess is in select North American theaters today.

The opening of The Villainess is dangerous. An exhilarating, first-person POV hallway fight scene that leaves a lot of unnamed henchmen in bloodied heaps is thankfully smart enough to (cleverly) shift away from the first-person angle just when you start wondering if the next two hours of your life are going to be a video game you aren't in control of. The move expands our view of the stunningly choreographed action and announces a hint of the innovation yet to come. Yes, it's dangerous, and like a lot of dangerous things – a mile-high tightrope walk, hanging to the outside of a C130 in flight, killing Keanu Reeves' dog – it's also thrilling when done right.

The new movie from co-writer/director Jung Byung-gil is a revelation that continues the hot streak of innovative eye-wideners we've been on since The Raid. It focuses on Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin from Thirst in a breakout role), an assassin, born to violence at a very young age, plucked as an adult from the criminal underworld to work for a government agency as a kind of indentured servant who needs to rack up ten years of missions before being set free to live a normal life. After graduating from a brutal, isolated training facility run by a steely bureau chief, she's given a fake identity as a sleeper agent posing as a professional actress, and the twitchy, boyish Hyun-soo (Sung Jun) is sent by the agency to live next door and keep tabs on her.

Sook-hee's past is filled with blood and bad men, so you can already guess how trying to live a normal life works out.

Hyun-soo's legitimate affection for Sook-hee sends us into a second act romantic comedy that is pure delight. It also adds vibrancy, heart, and stakes for a tragic woman doomed to bloodshed. Kim and Sung both shine in sequences where two people pretending to be who they are not let their guards down enough to find genuine love beneath their fake identities. It's a brilliant, risky shift that literalizes the idea of "playing house" — something Sook-hee has longed for, without really knowing what it means, since her childhood. Director Jung daringly drops a romantic comedy into the middle of his action thriller, and it is so, so good.

Beyond When Harakiri Met Sally, the triumph of The Villainess is in fight scenes that relish violence without it ever feeling wanton. Everything is cranked up past 11 – motorcycle engines, gun shots, swords clanging – but the absurdity is never rubbery or cartoonish, and a sense of wry humor is sprinkled throughout. Its intensity alone is what makes it outlandish; unlike gratuitous gore that shuts down the system, every battle here leaves you so far out on the edge of the knife that shaking your smiling head at the outrageousness of it all is the only possible subconscious pressure valve release. This is violence that dances and sings.

Granted, it also gets some ridiculousness from its incongruous imagery: a bride with a sniper rifle, a three-way sword fight on motorcycles, a sledgehammer in a small child's frilly bedroom. Villainess wants you on your toes.

Matched with Park Jung-hun's clear-eyed cinematography, these scenes come to frenetic life. You might want to pop some Dramamine beforehand, but part of the joy of this film is in letting its rhythms and shifts in perspective overtake what your brain would normally expect. In one of the bus-staged, climactic fights, we sail anfractously from God-mode to first person to close-up flashes of small details in an awe-inspiring marriage of art and aggression.

Naturally, the action isn't the entire story. The plot stays in the standard sandbox that comes with secretive government agencies and sadistic crime families, and it's just convoluted enough to work. The characters, while portrayed strongly by the actors, are all necessarily two-dimensional, but the emotions come through with great clarity.

There's also an undercurrent that toys with the standard revenge tropes. The Villainess gives us one possible view of what happened to Mathilda after The Professional – a girl marred by loss and destruction too early on to ever be sane, who's faced betrayal after betrayal, who can only ever pretend to be normal. It explores the shift from the trust of a child which fuels a young woman's mechanical execution of murder to the complexity of an adult who has begun questioning the impulses beneath her trauma.

Not that anyone could accuse The Villainess of being heady. Its bread and butter is in bloodshed. Inventive, optically acrobatic, seismic bloodshed. The engaging characters and subtext are welcomed icing on top. When it hits theaters, be prepared to hear the same chorus of quotations that usually orbits buzzy action flicks – "action-packed," "heart-stopping," "mind-blowing" – and know that The Villainess surpasses them as something altogether new. If Confession of Murder established Jung as a filmmaker to watch, this cements him as a brash, confident hand guiding action cinema to its next levels.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10