One of the reasons why The Villainess will be remembered is that in the first five minutes it probably holds the record for the highest body count in any film, Kill Bill included (and perhaps some Tarantino envy). And, while not quite in the same league, the finale also has a high body count. That piece of information will indicate to audiences whether they want to see this film on not.
But, there is more to the film and the extraordinarily edited acrobatics of those first five minutes, the continual onslaught of attacking men, dispatched by the female of the title. This is the story about that woman, called the villainess, which is rather hard on her and her reputation. She is not a villainess in the ordinary understanding of the word. She is not a malevolent plotter.
Audiences have to keep their attention highly acute as the screenplay moves from the present, back into the past, relying on different haircuts, some plastic surgery alterations, so that they can understand whether they are watching flashbacks or the continuing narrative.
A young girl, in China, is distraught at the death of her father and wants revenge on his killers. She is taken on by a criminal, cruel but charming towards the young woman, marrying her, making her pregnant, but ensuring that she is a skilled killer.
A secret organisation from Korea takes her over, introducing her to a strange formation program with a number of women who are training to be agents. They have all kinds of skills besides the martial arts, cooking, theatrical training and performance. They also have a member of the supervising team companion to the woman as a project – although the young man allotted to this task falls in love with the woman and is eager to take care of her baby daughter.
The woman is promised freedom after 10 years working for the organisation, supervised by a strong-minded woman as the chief.
When she fails in one of her commissions, actually to shoot her former husband, her place in the organisation begins to unravel, and she becomes the victim of a jealous rival.
As has been said, film goes back and forth, filling in the background gradually, in following the woman, her maternal instincts, her loving union with the agent as her husband, her theatrical performances – which all leads to, as anticipated, a final confrontation, her vindication, though with great sadness and the death of those dear to her, with bloodthirsty consequences.
Korea has built up a reputation for producing this kind of complex action film, very explicit in its action sequences and massacres, but with some psychological story and underpinning.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting