Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:04 pm 
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KIM OK-BIN IN THE VILLAINESS

Marvellous madness

Welcome to the mad world of Jung Byung-gil's The Villainess, a mix of ultra-violence, romance, melodrama, and sentimentality, snarls, screams, and sobs. It takes off (or, if you like, steals) from Luc Besson's La femme Nikita, with a girl, Sook-hee, who sees her father horribly murdered and is raised by a gang of criminals as a ruthless killer. She's married by her boss and mentor, who's murdered on her honeymoon, and after various exploits including the virtuoso wipeout of dozens in a rival gang which we see from her POV in the first impressive, finally numbing, opening sequence, Sook-hee is captured by police.

The cops turn her over to an icy-chic boss lady of government intelligence, Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung). We're going to see a lot of this mean, relentless lady. After plastic surgery turning her from plain to pretty (from then on she's played by Kim Ok-bin, the star of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst), Sook-hee is trained up under Chief Kwon to be a government assassin. The deal is that she must do Chief Kwon's absolute bidding for ten years, and then will be free. Meanwhile, she has a kid, and is provided with a cover occupation: actress.

Unknown to her, she's assigned a young male trainee to watch her, disguised as the nice boy next door, Hyun-soo (lively, angular former model Sung-Jun), and Hyun-soo and Sook-hee, wih breathtaking speed, will woo and marry. So in short order we get child-rearing, murdering, dating, and wedding - and in this movie, you never know which will come next. Furthermore, the filmmaker and his ADD editor Heo Sun-mi often splice in fantasies or memories of Sook-hee's past, especially her life with her late (or is he?) first husband.

All this is bright and colorful. The Villainess may be a crazy, senseless film (it would be hard to argue otherwise), but it's a beautiful one, and if you like insanity it can be fun. With the mix of revenge, extraordinary hardship, and wild changes of fortune, all staged with bravado, it's unmistakably a Korean film, and a flashy one, if not really quite one of the first rank. The director got his start with Action Boys, a movie about stuntmen, and it's interesting to compare this with the other movie this summer about a dangerous lady, David Leitch's Atomic Blonde: Lewitch got his own start as a stuntman, and has done some of the best of them - Fight Club, the Bourne movies, lots of others, and had a key hand in Keanu Reeves's ruthless brutality in John Wick.

Atomic Blonde is perhaps marginally a better movie than The Villainess. It's got a solid location and historical moment, Berlin in 1989 just before the fall of the Wall. Its heroine has some sort of clearcut (if uninteresting, and somewhat muddled) mission, recovery of a list of British agents for Mi6. And it's got Charlize Theron, with her attitude, ciggies, Stoli vodka endorsements, her bleach job, her brutal and somewhat dogged but admirably clear-cut full-body fights. It's a schtick you can hang onto, even though just as Villainess is plagued with flashbacks, it's all flashback.

But I found Atomic Blonde intolerably dreary. It wasn't just Cold War malaise, John Goodman's hound dog jowls, James McAvoy's lack of solidity, or even the sadness of comparing "Lorraine Broughton" (not a very catchy name, that) with James Bond and missing all the charm and panache. The trouble, above all, is that this is a dispiritingly dull, dark-looking film, drowning in murky blue-green digital soup. This is where The Villainess soars ahead. As I said, it's bright and beautiful, with gleaming reds, amber filters - and absurdly wonderful spectacles to burn.

Watch how the cars gleam and glow in the night. Watch the lengthy battle of sword fighters - on motorcycles! - and revel in the ringing sounds of the clashing blades. (Who knows who the riding swordsmen are or how this fight got started, but just enjoy the rarity of it.) Watch Sook-hee commanded to become a sniper from a bathroom window at her own wedding. See the couple doing battle who fall out a window and catch onto the facade - and go on fighting. Watch Sook-hee in tight black leather riding on the hood of a white car, then leaping onto a green bus, smashing through the window and doing battle inside. The lens used makes the interior of the bus shrink and throb like the limbs of plastic man.

When the bus falls over and dies, its interior still flashes and sparkles. In this movie, even death delights to be alive.

The Villainess 악녀 (Ak-Nyeo), 129 mins., debuted May 2017 at Cannes, out of competition; Fantasia, Montreal, 13 July; US premiere in the NYAFF as the closing night film, also 13 July. Opens in theaters in NY and LA 25 Aug. (IFC Center; AMC Dine-In Sunset 5); in northern California, 8 Sept. 2017.

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