The Villainess (악녀, Jung Byung-gil, 2017)

the villainess korean posterVengeance is a doubled edged sword, it cannot help but wound the wielder. The heroine of Jung Byung-gil’s ironically titled The Villainess (악녀, Aknyeo) has more to be revenged of than even she knows. Yes, the narrative beats are familiar and Jung has clearly drawn inspiration from Luc Besson’s seminal hit woman movie La Femme Nikita as well as the long history of female revenge films from Lady Snowblood to Kill Bill, but he does it with style and style is always hard to argue with. A new kind of action cinema, The Villainess makes a performer of its camera, darting frantically like an animal on the run and then drifting listlessly between dreamlike visions of half remembered traumas. Jung remains firmly in B-movie territory but owns it, unafraid to embrace the genre’s more extreme qualities and all the better for it.

When we first meet Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), we are Sook-hee. Jung opens with a lengthy (seeming) one take POV shot of an assassin fearlessly taking down untold numbers of bad guys in a tightly controlled corridor battle before we are suddenly ejected from her head when it connects with a mirror. Sook-hee has come here for revenge, though we don’t know that yet. Leaping from an upper window and landing heroically in an alleyway below, Sook-hee is taken into custody by a shady government organisation intent on turning her into a sleeper assassin. She is uniquely qualified for the task but has lost all hope and longs only for death. The revelation that she is pregnant gives her a reason to keep on living, as does the promise of her new mentor, Kwon-sook (Kim Seo-Hyung), who assures her ten years of service will buy a lifetime of comfort and freedom both for herself and the young life inside her.

Of course, it is not that simple. Jung gradually reveals Sook-hee’s backstory through brief flashbacks and lengthier evidence gathering sequences but her story is one of constant abandonment, adoption, betrayal, and vengeance. As if she could ever have forgotten them, the seminal images of Sook-hee’s life are frequently thrown back at her – an innocent girl witnessing the bloody death of her father, the eyes of the dying gazing back at something they once loved, games of death and of salvation. Sook-hee has been used and misused by men all her life, traded for jewels, and tricked into a murder of the self as sheds her skins to transform from frightened child to heartless killer, loyal wife, and loving mother. Swapping one master for another she is lied to and manipulated, denied her own identity in service of someone else’s ideals.

Ironically enough the prize which is dangled in front of Sook-hee’s eyes is nothing more than the prospect of a “normal life”, free from crime, killing, and fractured identities. As elliptical as the film itself, Sook-hee’s adult life is an ongoing quest to regain what was taken from her in childhood. A “normal life” is what’s offered to her by each of her respective masters but none of them has the capability, and only one the will, to give it to her. There can be no normal life for Sook-hee, reduced as she is from a name to an epithet. A villainess – no longer a woman, merely a faceless archetype, a grudge bearing revenger with dead eyes and an icy heart.

When Sook-hee performs in her strangely meta, Hedda Gabler inspired play, she remarks that she and the (presumably) long lost lover to whom she is speaking can no longer exist in the same space, in order for one to live the other must die. This line has an obvious correlation in the narrative but Sook-hee isn’t just speaking of her unseen enemy but of her own dualities. Only one Sook-hee can survive, but so many Sook-hees have died already starting with the lost little girl offered salvation in the barrel of the gun. Beginnings become endings, and endings become beginnings, but whether The Villainess is the story of a woman assuming her true identity or being subsumed by it, Sook-hee remains where she’s always been – alone and encircled by men with guns whose infinite authority she is perpetually unable to evade.


The Villainess was screened at FrightFest 2017 and will also be screened as the final Teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival at Regent Street Cinema on 11th September ahead of a limited cinema outing and October DVD/blu-ray release from Arrow Video.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Pandora (판도라, Park Jung-woo, 2016)

pandora (korean) posterIn a time of crisis, the populace looks to the government to take action and save the innocent from danger. A government, however, is often forced to consider the problem from a different angle – not simply saving lives but how their success or failure, decision-making process, and ability to handle the situation will be viewed by the electorate the next time they are asked who best deserves their faith and respect. Pandora (판도라) arrives at a time of particularly strained relations between the state and its people during which faith in the ruling elite is at an all time low following a tragic disaster badly mishandled and seemingly aided by the government’s failure to ensure public safety. Faced with an encroaching nuclear disaster to which their own failure to heed the warnings has played no small part, Pandora’s officials are left in a difficult position tasked with the dilemma of sacrificing a small town to save a nation or accepting their responsibility to their citizens as named individuals. Unsurprisingly, they are far from united in their final decision.

As the film opens, a group of children marvel at the towers of the new nuclear plant which has just been completed in their previously run down rural town. Not quite understanding what the plant is, they repeat snippets they’ve heard in their parents’ conversations – that the plant is a “rice cooker” that’s going to make them all rich, or it’s a “Pandora’s box” which may unleash untold horrors. Still, they seem excited about this new and futuristic arrival in their dull little village.

Flashforward fifteen years or so and one way or another all the kids now work at the plant, like it or not, because there are no other jobs available. Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-Gil) is one such conflicted soul who doesn’t disapprove of the plant in itself but has good reason to fear that the powers that be are not taking good enough care seeing that both his father and older brother were killed during a previous incident at the plant some years previously. Jae-hyuk lives with his widowed mother (Kim Young-ae), sister-in-law (Moon Jeong-Hee), and nephew (Bae Gang-Yoo) but is reluctant to marry his long-term girlfriend Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-Hyun) due to his lack of financial stability and growing disillusionment with small town life.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Korean president has been passed a file by a whistle-blower hoping to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and go directly to the top. The file, compiled by a worried engineer, details all of the many failings at the recently reconfigured plant which has been recklessly rushed into completion without the proper safety checks and required maintenance procedures. Unfortunately the president does not have time to read the report before a 6.1 magnitude earthquake strikes and destabilises the plant to the extent that it edges towards meltdown.

Unusually, in a sense, the president is a good man who genuinely wants to do the best for his people even if he sometimes ignores sensible advice out of a desire to protect those on the ground. Unfortunately, he is at the mercy of a corrupt cabinet headed by a scheming prime minister intent on withholding information in order to push the president into cynical decision-making models predicated on the idea of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few but which mainly relate to the needs of the prime minister and his cronies in the nuclear industry.

The man in charge of the plant has only been there a few weeks and has no nuclear industry experience. His second in command is a company man and his loyalty lies with his employers – he needs to keep everything functioning and ensure the plant will not be decommissioned. The only voice of reason is coming from the chief engineer who wrote the whistle blowing report and nobly remains on site throughout the disaster putting himself at grave personal risk trying to ensure the plant does not pose a greater danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Claiming a desire to avoid mass panic, the government attempts to order a media blackout, giving little or no information to civilians stranded in the town and fitting communications jammers to prevent the spread of information. The town is eventually given an evacuation order and orderly transportation to a shelter but once there the townspeople are kept entirely in the dark. When they become aware of the full implications of the disaster and try to leave independently, they are locked in while officials flee and leave them behind.

Conversely, the emergency services are hemmed in by regulations which state they cannot act because they would be putting themselves at unacceptable risk. Kang Jae-hyuk, despite his earlier irritation with his place of work, abandons his own cynicism to walk back into the disaster zone to help his friends still trapped inside. The president nobly refuses to order anyone to tackle the disaster directly knowing that it would mean certain death but opts to appeal for volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Unexpectedly, he finds them. The president is well-meaning but ineffectual, the government is corrupt, and the emergency services apparently overburdened with regulation while under-regulated commercial enterprises put lives in danger. The only force which will save the Korean people is the Korean people and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the common good even in the face of such cynical, self-interested greed.

Despite the scale of the disaster, Pandora takes its time, eschewing the kind of black humour which typifies Korean cinema disaster or otherwise. Serious rigour, however, goes out of the window in favour of overwrought melodrama, undermining the underlying messages of widespread societal corruption from corporations cutting corners with no regard for the consequences to politicians playing games with people’s lives. The powers that be have opened Pandora’s Box, but the only thing still trapped inside is men like Kang Jae-hyuk whose disillusioned malaise soon gives way to untempered altruism and eventually offers the only source of hope for his betrayed people.


Original trailer (English subtitles available from menu)

Train to Busan (부산행, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

Train to BusanMany people all over the world find themselves on the zombie express each day, ready for arrival at drone central, but at least their fellow passengers are of the slack jawed and sleep deprived kind, soon be revived at their chosen destination with the magic elixir known as coffee. The unfortunate passengers on an early morning train to Busan have something much more serious to deal with. The live action debut from one of the leading lights of Korean animation Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) pays homage to the best of the zombie genre providing both high octane action from its fast zombie monsters and subtle political commentary as a humanity’s best and worst qualities battle it out for survival in the most extreme of situations.

Workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is having a series of very bad days. His wife has left him and for unclear reasons, also left their young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), in her father’s care though apparently wants custody in the ugly divorce battle that now seems inevitable. It’s Soo-an’s birthday but all she wants is to catch a train to Busan to see her mum and if she has to she’ll even go by herself. After his attempt at a birthday present spectacularly backfires, Seok-woo gives in and agrees to take Soo-an to her mother’s before catching the next train back after dropping her off. Unfortunately, they have picked a very bad day to take the train.

Yeon Sang-ho takes his time to build to the central train based set piece but is is careful to create an atmosphere which makes it plain that there is something very wrong with this seemingly everyday set up. After a brief dig about pig farmers losing out to government policy on foot and mouth disease and irresponsible hit and run drivers leaving deer corpses behind them for someone else to deal with, he has a parade of emergency vehicles racing past Seok-Woo and Soo-an on their trip to the station while ash rains down on their car. Seok-woo is still focussed on work though sleepy on the train so he misses Soo-an’s shocked reaction to a station guard being rugby tackled just as the train is leaving while a mass of improbable early morning revellers are trying to break through the line of staff holding them back at the platform steps.

Patient zero bounds onto the train just as the doors close though one wonders why no one is paying much attention to this obviously distressed young woman as she stumbles and writhes around in the train carriage before the virus fully takes hold. Just as we think someone is about to come to her aid, it turns out to be a case of a snooty passenger taking offence at the presence of an “odd person” on the train. The “odd person” turns out to be a homeless guy whose mutterings of “dead, all dead” take on a prophetic air rather than the ramblings of a mad man that the train guards assume them to be.

This kind of stereotypical othering and the selfish refusal to help fellow humans in need is at the very heart of the film. Seok-woo admonishes his goodhearted daughter when she repeatedly makes an effort to be a kind and decent person by giving up her seat for an old lady or wanting to stop and help others escape the zombie onslaught. However, Soo-an’s goodness wins through as she in turn chastises her father and explains that his selfishness and lack of regard for the feelings of other people is the very reason her mother left the family. Even if he begins by cruelly closing the door on the film’s most heroic character and his pregnant wife, Seok-woo gradually begins to develop a sense of social responsibility whether out of simple pragmatism or genuine fellow feeling.

Workaholic fathers with minimal connections to their offspring may be something of a genre trope but, as father-to-be Sang-hwa says, fathers often get a bad rap – making all of the sacrifices and enjoying none of the rewards. In an attempt to show solidarity with Seok-Woo, Sang-hwa assures him that his daughter will understand why he worked so hard all the time when she grows up and reiterates that true fatherhood is about self-sacrifice. This is one sense plays into the earlier themes of Seok-Woo’s self-centred viewpoint in asking if he really is working hard for his family or only wants to been as such, maintaining his own social status and upperclass lifestyle and completing it with a perfectly posed family photo. A father is supposed to protect his daughter and now Soo-an has only him to rely on, if Seok-woo is going ensure her survival he will have to decide what kind of sacrifices he’s prepared to make on her behalf.

If the film has a villain it isn’t the rabid zombie hordes who, after all, are only obeying their programming, it’s personal, corporate, and political greed. The clearest embodiment of this is in the panicked businessman who frequently tries to issue orders to the train staff and insists the train take him to his preferred destination. After trying to get the homeless man thrown off the train early on, the fascistic businessman picks up a lackey in the form of a steward and begins trying to exclude all the “suspicious” people from his general vicinity. Cruel and cowardly, the businessman’s selfish actions only cause more problems for everyone else whilst whipping up unhelpful paranoia among those who will need to work together to survive. Literally feeding even his most loyal comrades to zombies to buy himself time to escape, this egotistical CEO is the perfect metaphor for cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system which is, as Sang-hwa said, content to let the “useless” fall behind.

That’s not to forget the actual undead threat. Yeon Sang-ho’s walking dead take inspiration from his animated work and move quickly with jerky, uncanny movements more like Butoh dancers than the usual stupefied shufflers. The set pieces are expertly choreographed and well shot, maintaining the tension throughout though the increase in scale towards the final stretch is at odds with the leaner, meaner approach of the early scenes. Despite eventually giving in to melodrama in a heavily signposted script, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an impressive effort making room for his standard social concerns whilst also providing innovative zombie thrills. Yeon Sang-ho’s message is clear, when disaster strikes no one can survive alone, the only chance for salvation lies in altruistic compassion. In the end the best weapon against the darkness is a children’s song as innocence finally triumphs over fear.


UK release trailer: