Korean action film Ak-Nyeo (The Villainess, 2017) opens with a blood-soaked sequence using first-person-shooter video game perspective, to the point of showing the unknown character reload a gun and change weapons in the middle of the screen while moving. Dozens of nameless baddies are shot, stabbed, punched, or kicked in this dizzying if familiar-feeling opening, while opponents get slightly tougher on each “level” of the one-person siege. Unfortunately between this opening sequence and an even more energetic climax, the story of a woman (Kim OkBin in a terrific turn as SookHee) programmed to be a killer gets bogged down by soap-opera–level piffle. Thankfully, the good eventually outweighs the histrionic in director Jung ByungGil’s latest outing.
After the opening sequence of Ak-Nyeo, the film continues in a flashback-laden unraveling of the tale of SookHee, who is revealed as the person causing all the previously mentioned mayhem. She finds herself the recipient of unasked-for plastic surgery and the newest recruit for a shadowy government branch of secret assassins. Chief Kwon (Kim SeoHyung) tells SookHee that if she serves for 10 years, she will be a free woman after that. As part of her undercover life, she and her young daughter move into an apartment; unbeknownst to her, the next-door neighbor is HyunSoo (SungJun), a lower-level agent with his eye on a promotion. HyunSoo has been tasked by the agency with keeping an eye on SookHee by becoming romantically involved with her. Viewers who have seen this sort of trope in similarly programmed action outings know exactly where this angle is headed, and Ak-Nyeo doesn’t do itself any favors by spending a good deal of its second and third acts focusing on this aspect, especially in its heavy-handed delivery. Add some backstory involving SookHee’s former husband JoongSang (Shin HaKyun), and you have a recipe for a schizophrenic script (by Jung ByungGil and Jung ByeongSik) that is satisfied with going more for mere tissue-wringing than for character development in its dramatic takes.
Kim OkBin — who was astounding going from meek, put-upon housewife to power-hungry madwoman in Park Chan Woo’s vampire noir effort Bakjwi (Thirst, 2009) — gives a stellar performance, showing off her acting chops and revealing a new physical, action-heavy side. She manages to ground the film when it starts to go in weepy, overly sentimental directions. Kim SeoHyung is impressive as Chief Kwon. HyunSoo and Shin HaKyun are fine in their roles as a handsome, bumbling, lovestruck agent and a practically moustache-twirling villain, respectively, but their characters aren’t developed much past being mere stock ones.
Action is the big draw here, and Jung ByungGil and crew swing for the fences but sometimes fall a bit short. The opening sequence, as I mentioned, is like a video game with live action, something that has been done before in cinema and that has also been done to death in first-person shooter games. Other set pieces work better, including the climactic chase scene. Some sequences are edited more rapidly than others, making it hard to focus on individual movements, thereby putting the emphasis on overall havoc. When Jung and editor HeoSunMi allow viewers to take things in with longer lasting shots, the scope of the action work feels much more engaging. Park JungHun’s cinematography is gorgeous, especially when the film’s bold, breathtaking, colorful palette is at the forefront.
Ak-Nyeo looks slick and has an undeniable energy. Fans of the recent crop of Asian action movies should find plenty to enjoy here, though the overwrought daytime serial elements slow things down greatly.
Ak-Nyeo (The Villainess) screens at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan), July 13-23.