When the South Korean action drama “The Villainess” begins, we are immediately enlisted as the perpetrators of a slaughter. With arms outstretched from the sides of the screen, and our eyes taking in the perspective of the killer, we shoot, hack and beat our way through a sea of assailants.
As directed by Jung Byung-gil, a former stuntman, the film mirrors the experience of playing a video game. The camera whips to each new target with the assurance of someone who knows all the combinations, and has instinctive, practiced access to every code and cheat. The only sign of conscious, unautomated humanity is the sound of the protagonist’s ragged breathing — an acknowledgment of the exhaustion that comes when a human being is pushed to become an action avatar.
Such is the plight of Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), a trained assassin who is the focus of this convoluted thriller. After executing the movie’s opening slaughter, she is caught by the police and recruited as a sleeper agent by an intelligence agency, which promises her freedom following 10 years of service. As “The Villainess” jumps between Sook-hee’s past and present, it becomes clear that she is trapped in a dizzying world of violence, where neither law nor outlaws can be trusted. Yet despite her despair, every action scene is as queasily pristine as the first, leaving “The Villainess” caught in paradox. It’s hard to enjoy the action when you witness its emotional cost, but once Sook-hee starts slashing goons from atop motorcycles, it’s equally impossible to root for the violence to stop.
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