"The Villainess" has some of the most audacious action sequences of the year. Between them is sandwiched a melodrama that jumps across time, with multiple betrayals along the way. The cumulative effect is dizzying, to the point where it's difficult to keep track of who is double-crossing whom, and why. Director Jung Byung-gil's fluid editing style makes these leaps seamlessly. But while that approach may be technically impressive, it makes it hard to maintain a genuine connection with the story.
The film opens on a grimy, dim hallway. The camera lurches forward, just as a gun-wielding hand emerges from the bottom of the screen, suggesting the perspective of a violent, first-person-shooter video game. Only here, the viewer is not in control of the faceless assassin who proceeds to maul countless henchmen with knives, guns and fists. A short time later, the character is revealed via a more traditional medium shot, and we learn more about her: She is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), a trained killer working for a criminal organization. After getting caught by the authorities, she is forced to work for the South Korean government.
Sook-hee's handler endeavors to keep her in check via a heavy-handed ruse, installing another agent (Shin Ha-kyun) to spy on her while posing as her next-door neighbor. But the pair falls in love.
Or do they? By jumping between several periods in Sook-hee's life — suggesting a tale of vengeance one minute and of tragedy the next — "The Villainess" lacks clarity. Still, the performances are rendered with confidence, even if they're in service of an all-too-common theme of spy films: Ruthless killers are people, too.
Without a clear narrative, the story recedes in the face of the movie's stylized violence — which is, admittedly, glorious, even brazen. At one point, Sook-hee engages in complex swordplay while riding a fast-moving motorcycle. And it only gets crazier from there. As the camera follows her, mirroring Sook-hee's jumps and falls, the intensity is never so chaotic that it becomes incoherent. In the end, however, "The Villainess" is little more than an action showcase, with way more scenes of turgid espionage than thrilling set pieces. It's for genre die-hards, not a general audience.
R. At ArcLight Bethesda. Contains strong language and intense, gory violence. In Korean with subtitles. 124 minutes.