Cinema/TV, Film Notes

FrightFest review – The Villainess

My notes on the Korean action film Ak-neo (The Villainess).

In a long POV shot, young Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) barges into a building and fights her way through dozens of gangsters on a vengeance crusade to get to bad guys who have just killed her husband (Shin Ha-kyun).  Minutes later, wounded but leaving a huge strew of corpses in her wake, she jumps out of a window and apparently dies … only to be picked up by a mystery organisation that recruits women and trains them as super-assassins.


Sook-hee is given plastic surgery and additional training to top up the formidable kill-skills she has acquired since childhood – when the man she would marry mentored her so she could get revenge on a previous villain who killed her father – but also benefits from tutoring in a range of useful disciplines from cooking to acting.  In one amusing sequence, she tries to make an escape from the school and blunders through a variety of innocent classes – ballet, etc – that don’t seem to fit in with the generally sinister tone.  The stony headmistress (Kim Seo-hyung) matches her with a young observer (Sung Joon), who is introduced incognito into her civilian life, which includes a daughter born after her murder rampage, as a covert controller.  Inevitably, he begins to have real feelings for her – and they become engaged, though even her wedding is set up as a cover for an opportunity to commit a long-range assassination.  Having been shaped by two separate and antithetical killer elites – one seemingly criminal, one perhaps government-affiliated – our heroine is given a series of missions which eventually prompt her to start thinking for herself and dig deeper into her own convoluted backstory for answers she doesn’t like.  And the bodies keep dropping all round her, with her own agency providing a good friend and a deadly rival and the ongoing mysteries about who committed the murders that have turned Sook-hee into a killing machine.


Director Jung Byung-gil, who co-wrote with Jung Byeong-sik, clearly fits together elements from Luc Besson’s Nikita and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – with key sequences that riff on scenes from those movies, especially when Sook-hee is in a flowing white wedding gown and assembling a sniper rifle stashed in a cistern.  The fact that both those female-led action films were derivative of Asian movies – and Nikita has already had a couple of remakes and spin-offs  – makes this gloss on their premises feel even more like a patchwork of its influences, with elements like the fight-through-many-opponents set-piece that riff on the likes of Oldboy and Ong-bak in the POV style of Hardcore Henry.  The only thing that makes it feel like more than an exercise is the almost parodically complicated (yet predictable) mystery element – as it takes a whole film to fathom the ins and outs of who betrayed who and what they then did to atone for or exacerbate the atrocity.  Sook-hee, who remains our heroine despite the title, is surrounded by surrogate parents and sham partners, even one who becomes the other … and even completes the family pattern (like Uma Thurman’s Bride) by being a mother as well as a daughter, a sister and a bride.  Kim Ok-bin gets a real workout in the role, not just in the action scenes – in her cover identity, Sook-hee is a stage actress known for emoting, and she has enough suffering here to fill a three-year-run of a soap opera.


Even if it’s familiar, there’s no denying that it’s exciting.


Here’s a trailer.



  1. Pingback: FrightFest 2017 – Complete Review Round-Up | The Kim Newman Web Site - August 29, 2017

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