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)

Pluto (명왕성, Shin Su-won, 2013)

GSEOiWzAs we’ve seen lately, there are certainly no shortage of films looking at the complicated and often harsh world of high school in Korea. Pluto (명왕성, Myungwangsung) takes a sideways look at the darker side of academic excellence when the praise and prestige of being one of the top students becomes almost like a drug and makes otherwise bright young people do things even a heroin addict in serious need of a fix might at least feel bad about afterwards with an all encompassing sense of entitlement that gives them a lifetime free pass for even the worst transgression.

June (David Lee) is a bright young boy from a regular high school who’s just transferred into an elite boarding school educating the country’s next great hopes. He may have been a top student at his old school, but here he’s merely average as the school hotshots are pretty quick to point out. Here, the top ten students are treated like princelings – a special computerised teaching room, no curfew, better rooms, better resources and they can more or less do what they like so long as they keep their grades up. Occasionally someone manages to bump one of the top ten from the list but they quickly get kicked out again. The top ten operate like some kind of swatters mafia – they all stick rigidly together, swapping hot tips for the upcoming exams that they refuse to share with the others and engaging in a series of increasingly cruel “pranks” they term rabbit hunts.

The film opens with the police finding the body of the previously number one student Yu-jin (Sung Joon) in a wood with June’s phone lying next him having been used to film the entire grisly affair. June is arrested for the murder but is released after his alibi checks out. Sick of all the struggle and unfairness, June puts his particular talents to use to try and teach the world a lesson about the sort of people this system is producing.

The picture Pluto paints of the Korean schools system is a frankly frightening one in which academic success is virtually bought and paid for or guaranteed by class credentials. Yes, the top students obviously must have ability – some of their activities may come close to cheating but interestingly nobody seems to want to try actual deception to get ahead. However, that natural ability has clearly been bolstered by their parents’ wealth. Attending an elite school and spending more than some people earn on private tutors geared towards knowing how to get into the best universities undoubtedly gives them advantages which are out of reach for others no matter how smart they may be. Perhaps that’s fair enough in a capitalist society, they didn’t ask to be born to rich parents and who would turn that sort of help down if offered it? However, though they may possess the virtues of discipline, hard work and a desire to succeed what they lack is any sort of empathy or even common human decency. Engaging in a series of manipulative hazing exercises, the elite group will stop at nothing to protect their status specialising in thuggery, blackmail, rape and even murder. The sort of people this system is advancing are not the sort of people you want running your schools and hospitals, they are morally bankrupt and only care about their own standing in the eyes of others.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this elite boarding school is housed inside a former compound of the Korean secret police, including a subterranean layer of prison-like tunnels once used as a torture chamber. Aside from the obvious school as torture analogies, much of them film seems to be about what people choose to ‘unsee’. The headmaster of the high school is aware of the ‘untoward’ behaviour of some of his pupils but refuses to do anything in case it upsets their well connected parents, damages the reputation of his school or has an adverse effect on those all important test results. The ‘Pluto’ of the title is referenced in June’s university application essay on the demotion of Pluto from the accepted list of planets. He argues that this is unfair and a fallacy as it’s illogical to measure anything by its proximity to the sun which is, after all, just another star which will eventually die like all the others. Just because it’s a little different looking, you shouldn’t necessarily categorise it as being in some way ‘inferior’ based on a set of fairly flimsy criteria. June, like Pluto, hovers in uncertain orbit on the periphery – always wanting in but perpetually locked out. Naturally gifted but from an ‘ordinary’ background where his single mother sells insurance for OK money, June can’t hope to compete with these elite kids even if his capabilities may be greater. A lot of decisions have already been made as to what people choose to see, have chosen to regard as an ideal, even if the reality is painfully obvious.

Though oddly funny in places for such a hard hitting film, Pluto is a difficult watch at times and paints a depressing picture of the high pressured nature of the Korean educational system and of human nature in general. The elite group are universally awful people who run the gamut from arrogant, entitled prigs to snivelling cowards which makes it difficult to feel any sort of sympathy and you start to long for bad things to happen to them which somewhat undermines the film’s premise. Perhaps the problem is just that they were awful people who were enabled by a system rather than people who started out good and were corrupted by it. Stylishly shot and supported by well grounded performances from its young cast, Pluto is a welcome addition to this perhaps overcrowded genre which brings more than a few new thought provoking ideas to the table.


 

Review of first Pluto published by UK Anime Network.