By: Busra Mutlu
2017 has been a good year for action films. We were given the long-awaitedsequel John Wick: Chapter 2, the latest Wolverine film Logan and the eighthinstalment of the Fast and the Furious franchise along with many others. Among these releases, some were supposed to be ground-breaking for women. Action films with a female protagonist are very hard to come by and this year we saw the release of several of them. We witnessed Wonder Womanbecome the highest grossing film by a female director, the highly anticipated and highly disappointing Atomic Blonde and the complete and utter disgrace that is the Ghost in the Shell adaptation.
Among the hundreds of action films released, only a handful have female characters in the lead. It seems Hollywood can only make riveting action films with male leads, such as the Jason Bourne and Mission Impossible series, because the female-leading films have only been problematic so far. Atomic Blonde gave us a selectively bi-sexual lead character, while Ghost in the Shellwhitewashed almost every character from the manga by casting white actors for almost every role.
While we were waiting for Hollywood to bless us with a good female-lead action film, a gift came from South Korea with The Villainess. Directed by Byung-gil Jung, the film stars Ok-bin Kim as Sook-hee, a trained assassin who, after avenging the death of her lover, begins to work for the government in return for her freedom. The film immediately starts with an action scene in which we see Sook-hee kill at least 30 men from the first-person perspective. It is truly a new and amazing experience. The scene is shot in a continuous sequence and it doesn’t change even when there’s a switch from Sook-hee’s perspective to the third person. Lucky for us, scenes like this are plenty in the film.
We see Sook-hee fighting with swords guns and even on motorbikes. We are never deprived of action throughout the film and it is bloody and gory. Watching the fight scenes from a first-person perspective is so different and much more thrilling compared to the third-person perspective. It’s obviously more difficult to shoot and there are some flaws, but you get so immersed in the film, they’re unnoticeable.
Unlike many action films involving assassins and spies, such as John Wick and James Bond, The Villainess also provides us with a worthy plot, rather than giving us a forgettable story we can’t invest in. We encounter Sook-hee just as she’s on a personal mission to avenge the murder of a loved one. Once she accomplishes that, she is given a second chance by a secret organisation within the South Korean government; she trains with them, learning all the skills she needs to be a secret agent and work for them for 10 years.
If she accepts, she’s put in a school, where she learns to cook, act, use make-up along with shooting guns and the martial arts. Once she finishes her training and graduates from the school by completing her first mission, she is given a new identity to take on in the outside world. If she works for them for 10 years, she retires with a good pension. Sook-hee agrees and soon graduates with ease, living the life of an actress who stars in small plays in the real world. And as soon as she receives a mission, she completes it without a second thought. Although Sook-hee is amazing at her job, she is surprisingly sensitive. She finds herself torn between her job and her past, which pushes her yet into another path of vengeance.
Revenge is a major theme in the film. We see this when Sook-hee vows to avenge her father’s death and then her lover’s, and then once again for her loved ones. Revenge is what introduced her to the world of assassins and it is what helped her complete her goals. It becomes a vicious cycle for her. There are times when we see it taking a toll on her, but it seems as if this is the best thing Sook-hee knows how to do. She lives her ‘normal’ life, while always choosing revenge, when she could easily walk away. Even though it seems like fate toys with her, Sook-hee makes her own decisions.
The roles of men and women in the film are also very interesting. In a world run by men, in every aspect, The Villainess takes this point and puts it on the big screen for us. We are introduced to Sook-hee when she goes on a killing rampage (for 10 minutes), killing men and is then arrested by male police officers. However, what saves her is a woman.
We are invited to a meeting of the secret intelligence agency which is full of men, and only one woman who sees Sook-hee as an asset. Chief Kwon (Seo-hyeong Kim) is the one who makes the important decisions in a room full of men, even though she’s not at the head of the table. She is, however, the head of the school. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the school only has female agents who are watched by male agents.
Once a student graduates and earns the right to leave the school, they are assigned a male agent to keep an eye on them, without their knowledge. Even though it’s the women who do the dirty work, it’s once again the men who are in charge, with the exception of Chief Kwon. Perhaps that was Chief Kwon’s idea; to assign them a person who will try and become close to them so they are not lonely in the world.
It is easy to say that Chief Kwon steals every scene she’s in, even if she doesn’t utter a single word. Her steady and strong presence, androgynous powersuits and the constant cigarette in hand will quickly make her one of your favourite characters. She’s strong, independent and fierce, yet loving and caring in her own way. Even though that sounds cliché, it feels far from that and it’s what makes her different. She has to be strong in a room full of men and fierce towards the men, but she cares for her students as much as she can. Her job comes first, but we see that she feels divided sometimes. Although she has the hardest and most important job, she takes care of most things personally. She chooses the women who are suitable candidates, oversees the school and the missions and not once does she lose her footing in all the chaos. She doesn’t see the women as inconveniences or expendables and is the greatest ally to them in the film.
The men in the film are a different story. The action is exaggerated in the film with over the top scenes, however the portrayal of men is perfect. The Villainess is a film about a female assassin, yet only a handful of characters are female with the majority being male characters, and this seems like an accurate representation of real life. It’s a ‘man’s world’, and it seems that women suffer more. Sook-hee’s father is a single parent, with no mention of her mother, and his killers are male. She goes on her revenge mission because of the men in her life. Even the most innocent ones betray her. They either die or deceive her. Before she’s herself, she’s a daughter who avenges her father, a mother to her own daughter, a lover to a dangerous man, but most importantly she’s an assassin. Even on her wedding day, she’s given a mission and we watch in awe as she holds a sniper rifle in her wedding dress. She has many roles, just like the other women in the film.
The Villainess isn’t a perfect film, although it comes extremely close. The plot gets a bit melodramatic and some of the scenes are a little sloppy, but these flaws are easily dismissed thanks to the rest of the film. The film gives us pure, uncensored action with great actors including Ha-kyun Shin, Joon Sung and Jo Eun-Ji. It certainly deserves every second of the standing ovation it received at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and in my opinion, is the best action film of the year.
Editor: Juwairiyah Khan
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.