Review – The Villainess (2017) Fantasia International Film Festival!

by Vincent Leblanc

The time is finally here for the 21st edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival to begin in downtown Montreal, Quebec. It started on July 13th and runs until August 2nd. This year’s opening film was the North American premiere of the South Korean film The Villainess (Ak-Nyeo). It was my first of twenty-four screenings I’ll attend this year.  

The Villainess was directed, co-written and produced by Jung Byung-gil. It stars Kim Ok-bin and Shin Ha-kyun. The film had it’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this past May, an out of competition, midnight projection. It will also be the closing film of the New York Asian Film Festival on July 16th and the closing film of The Asian Film Festival of Dallas on July 20th.   

Now, at Fantasia, the film is in competition for the “Cheval Noir” award, Fantasia’s top prize awarded by a jury. Nicolas Archambault, one of the two directors of Asian programming for the festival, came to the stage of the sold out Concordia Hall Theater. He welcomed us and hoped we were going to have fun with this film which he said was a big success at Cannes (it supposedly received a four-minute standing ovation after the screening). He suggested we kept our eyes wide opened for the crazy first 10-15 minutes of the film.  He told us about the director’s previous film Confession of Murder and asked the crowd who saw it at the Festival in 2013 (I did). Several other hands were up in the air. He also mentioned the director’s documentary Action Boys (2008) about South Korean stuntmen.

Mr. Archambault said they had a special guest and proceeded to welcome director Jung Byung-gil to the stage. He stood from his place and came to the mic, accompanied by his interpreter. He received a respectful Fantasia applause. He spoke very briefly and quietly (even with a mic in front of his mouth). He basically told us his name, the title of his movie and welcomed us/thanked us for being there. Mr. Archambault said to stick around after the screening for a Q&A with the director.

In case you haven’t heard about The Villainess, here’s what it is about. This synopsis is taken from the Cannes Film Festival official website. I thought it was less spoiler-ific than the one on the Fantasia website:

“Since she was a little girl, Sook-hee was brought up to become a deadly assassin. She gets a second chance in life when South Korea’s Intelligence Agency’s Chief Kwon recruits her to become a sleeper cell. Her new identity is Chae Yeon-soo, 27 years old, theater actress. With a promise of complete freedom after serving the country for 10 years, Sook-hee begins a new life. For someone who lived a life of a killer, living a normal life is no easy task. But when 2 men appear in her life suddenly, she uncovers secrets of her past…”

This film did indeed start with a bang! It was an intense five to eight minute POV fighting sequence in a building and tight corridors. It was basically shot the same way than the 2016 Russian-American action flick Hardcore Henry, meaning that a stuntman/woman is doing all the fighting, the jumping and the shooting with a camera system strapped to his/her helmet or something. The sequence is similarly dizzying but still impressive. Technically, I felt it was pretty obvious that many fake cuts are hidden in the camera movements, often helped by subtle digital manipulations that caught my eye every time. These manipulations are pretty much in every actions scenes.  I figure the director needed to do that to achieve some shots because a few times I thought: “Man, no way a cameraman had the space to go there”. And that cameraman is everywhere! He’s in the action, close to the actors. He goes around, above and under them. It’s often chaotic but you get the hang of it after a while.   

While we’re talking about action, the film has other pretty cool sequences involving bikes, guns, blades, cars and a city bus, sometimes, all mixed together. There is also a pretty generous blood flow throughout the film when people get stabbed or shot. When it comes to the story, I have to say that the narrative was a bit confusing to me. The director decided to present the film a little bit out of order, regularly using flashbacks to earlier moments in the life of the main character Sook-hee, whether as a kid or a few years before the present timeline. I think I managed to catch up at the halfway point of the film. There were a few interesting moments during the film but I can’t say I was really surprised by the developments and the twists in the story. Like I wrote earlier, some of these things were written in the synopsis found on the festival’s website. Obviously, I don’t know what would have been my reaction if I hadn’t read it. The writers also incorporated a few cute/romantic elements to the story about midway through the film, to break up the action I guess. It made many audience members laugh or just go “awwww”. It was alright but I didn’t really care for it.

After the screening, Nicolas Archambault came back to the stage. He asked us to welcome back director Jung Byung-gil for a Q&A. Mr. Byung-gil answered briefly to the questions with the help of his interpreter. Here’s what I got:

-Mr. Archambault asked if it was important to him to make an action film with a strong female hero. Mr. Byung-gil said that there aren’t many actresses with leading roles in South Korean movies. He was not happy with that. He wanted to do this movie because there are movies in other countries with strong female characters.

-Mr. Archambault asked if it was important to him to have a good drama surrounding the action in his film. The director said that when he started writing the film, the action was secondary. He wanted to put the accent on the psychology of this woman and the dramas she went through. Then, the action came.

-An audience member asked what was the most difficult scene to shoot. The director said that, in general, everything was difficult. In particular, he said the scene on the city bus was the most difficult. They shot in the winter and then there was rain that froze when it got to the ground.

-Another audience member asked what he thought of the reaction of the crowd compared to Cannes. The director noticed that we laughed more during the action than in South Korea. Mr. Archambault asked again to compare with Cannes. Mr. Byung-gil said we reacted in a similar way than Cannes, we applauded during key moments. This is not an usual thing in South Korea.

-A lady in the audience asked if we are going to see the character of Sook-hee again in the future. She didn’t know exactly how to pronounce it so it sounded funny. The director said he hasn’t thought about a sequel yet, he didn’t know. Mr. Archambault joked with the woman that asked the question and the audience that if a sequel does come out, we’d have to call the main character Madam and not fuck with her.

-Another person asked if it was a difficult decision to kill a certain character (I’m omitting the details, obviously). The director said that we didn’t know if that character was really dead. If he comes up with an idea for a sequel, he might just bring back that character. Mr. Archambault joked again that we’d have to call this character *gender omitted* and not fuck with *gender omitted*.

-A man asked how they shot the opening scene. The director explained in too few words that the stuntman or woman had a camera attached under his/her chin or neck area that allowed free movements.

And that was it for the Q&A.

Well Go USA acquired the domestic rights at Cannes two months ago. The film is filed under “Coming soon” on their website. Yesterday, on their FB page, they reminded their followers of the two festival screenings I mentioned earlier, “before it hits theaters” it says. No date though.

Kim Ok-bin plays the main character Sook-hee and she’s very solid. She kicks ass and goes through various emotions as she discovers the secrets of her past. The other important characters are well played too. All in all, The Villainess is a fairly entertaining movie. It’s a bit confusing and the drama didn’t totally engage me, but the action is pretty solid.

I’ll give The Villainess a 3 out of 5 Hairpieces!

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