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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Villainess (Blu-ray)
The Villainess (Blu-ray)
Well Go USA // Unrated // November 21, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $14.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Tyler Foster | posted December 8, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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Following a wild rampage through some sort of underground laboratory in which she leaves every single challenger dead, Sook-he (Kim Ok-vin) is taken into police custody -- or so it seems. Instead, she wakes up in an church that serves as a cover for an assassin training ground where Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) trains similarly violent female proteges in everything from combat to cooking (for their cover identities). With Sook-he's unborn daughter as a bargaining chip, Kwon convinces her to join the program, with the promise of retirement and complete freedom after a decade of service. Sook-he is a natural, and after her daughter Eun-hye (Kim Yeon-woo) is born, she'll do anything to protect her, but unfortunately for everyone, her past is about to come back to haunt her.

Directed by Jung Byung-gil, The Villainess is a familiar story executed with exhilarating panache. Although the film's gonzo action sequences invite viewers to dismiss the film as style over substance, Jung strikes a good balance between pulpy drama and cartoonish violence, all shouldered ably by Kim in the lead role. Viewers with any experience watching twisty revenge thrillers will figure out many of the movie's bigger revelations before they arrive, but anyone on the movie's heightened, melodramatic wavelength isn't likely to mind.

The film opens with a first-person action sequence that one-ups the surprisingly dull Hardcore Henry and mashes it with the hallway fight from Oldboy, as Sook-he rampages through dirty hallways shooting and stabbing meth lab assistants wearing facemasks left and right. Halfway through, however, Jung moves back a step from the first person and continues the mayhem using a roving camera that sneaks up inches away from the action, swinging and shifting wildly along with Sook-he's movements. At times, the movement is so fast it's hard to take it all in, and it's clear that Jung is stitching some of his shots together with clever editing or computer trickery, but the effect is so ambitious it's hard not to admire it. Pleasingly, he's also conscious of overdoing such an aggressive technique: across the whole film, Jung is judicious in how much action he doles out, giving the audience a few wild opening salvos before backing off until the big finale. The only downside is that this metering of the action leads to the movie's weakest element, an extended courtship involving Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun), another member of the training academy, sent by Kwon to supervise Sook-he out in the real world under the guise of a friendly neighbor.

Some viewers may find themselves confused by the film's twisted chronology, which leaps back and forth between present day Sook-he, and her past, but while Jung may catch viewers off guard diving into one unexpectedly, they're fairly straightforward when taken as a whole. We learn that Sook-he witnessed her father's murder by a mysterious whistling gangster over a stolen gemstone, and then see her determination to find the killer and settle the score. Her hunt eventually leads her to a sympathetic gangster, Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), who offers Sook-he her first training in the art of killing. Their relationship, first as mentor and mentee, and later as husband and wife, form the demons that burst through into the present and interrupt her plans to take advantage of Chief Kwon's bargain.

Kim, most famous for Park Chan-wook's Thirst, is impressive in dividing the two halves of her performance, before and after the sequence that opens the movie. The younger Sook-he is energetic and wears her emotions on her sleeve, while the Sook-he that exists Kwon's training academy is more hesitant and steely. Not only does she perform the film's various stunts with panache, she also single-handedly imbues the film with emotion by seguing from one persona to the other, only to break again as things spin out of control. It's a witty, slyly theatrical performance further underlined by Sook-he's decision to become an actress as her cover story, starring in a similarly melodramatic play.

The Blu-ray
The Villainess arrives from Well Go USA in a two-disc set packed into an eco-friendly Vortex case. A simple image of Sook-he standing, gun out, blade at her side, graces the front cover -- an image that seems pretty stock until one watches the movie -- bathed in the same sort of purple / pink neon color scheme that was used to sell John Wick. Inside the case, there is an insert advertising other Well Go releases, the Blu-ray, and DVD copy. The entire package is wrapped in a foil embossed slipcover featuring identical imagery.

The Video and Audio
The Villainess's 2.39:1 1080p AVC transfer is mostly impressive, offering excellent fine detail, strong contrast, and vivid colors. During the fast-moving action sequences, detail can sometimes suffer, or exhibit motion blur similar to interlacing, but I am confident these issues are inherent to the original photography, not the Blu-ray. The one minor PQ quibble is some extremely minor banding at a couple of points. As Well Go's titles often feature heavy banding (something I doubt is necessarily the label's fault as opposed to a quirk of the elements they receive), this is comparatively acceptable. There are also no issues with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which features striking directional effects during the film's wild martial arts sequences (especially the mostly first-person opening sequence, in which directional audio is crucial), and the dialogue and music are handled with equal effectiveness. As is Well Go's M.O., they have also included a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix of the original Korean audio, plus DTS-HD MA 5.1 and DD 2.0 tracks of the English dub. English subtitles are also, of course, included.

The Extras
There is something about the style of bonus features produced in Asia that tends to be really tedious. Well Go, one of the most prominent distributors of Asian films in the US, has plenty of discs that contain 45-minute featurettes, offering echo-filled interviews in production offices intercut with lengthy B-roll, free of music, that seem to go on forever. So of course, The Villainess, one of the few movies where an in-depth look at the making of the movie might be worth sitting through, is given two extremely short promo-style featurettes instead, "Action Choreography" (2:36) and "The Characters" (1:42). The first at least gives a sense of the extensive wirework and in-camera stunt photography that was done for the action sequences. The latter is more like a glorified trailer.

Trailers for Triple Threat, Better Watch Out, and Train to Busan play before the main menu, and are also selectable from the main menu. An American teaser trailer and original theatrical trailer for The Villainess are also included.

The Villainess is a bold movie, exhilarating and admirable in its dedication to a unique tone and style. That blend of flavors is extreme enough that some viewers are sure to find it overhyped, but it's hard to deny Kim Ok-vin's performance, both as a dramatic lead and an action star. Recommended.

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