As far as opening action sequences go, South Korean actioner The Villainess might just have the best: a first-person, single-take fight through corridors packed with scores of assailants, like Oldboy meets The Raid. With a woman. In a meth lab.
As well as upping the ante for the already extreme theatres of blood that are East Asian action movies, this intro sets a high bar for the next two hours, and is only matched by the similarly acrobatic closing sequence. In between we get a lot of plot, where our powerful protagonist (Kim Ok-vin) is sent to a sort of prep school for assassins, or finishing school if you will.
Jung Byung-gil’s prioritising of story over action is interesting in a genre that often employs a bare-bones revenge formula to justify its bloodshed, opting instead for an espionage plot whose violent scenes are surprisingly few. This proves something of a double-edged sword: while it wisely shuns the shoehorned torture of The Raid 2, here the action is so good it feels almost cruel whenever it is denied.
That is not to say the narrative is bad; confusing and familiar maybe (and intriguing to see Asian cinema taking inspiration from the Japanese-inspired Kill Bill) but equally poised and slick where Kill Bill was amateurish. Yet for all its twists, romance and a very cute kid (Kim Yeon-woo), the one unassailable standout of The Villainess is its virtuoso violence.