Yesterday was the very first day of the Fantasia International Film Festival, and I decided to pop in on opening film The Villainess [2017], being screened with director Jeong Byeong-Gil in attendance.

The film starts off strong, with a first-person fight scene that blends seamlessly to the third-person partway through. And indeed, the action scenes remain consistently strong, bloody and kinetic throughout (though inquiring minds want to know: does Seoul really have that many antique-looking fire axes?).

villainessAfter the titular villainess stabs, slashes and strangles her way through a slew of enemies, for reasons as-yet-unknown, she finds herself wounded and is taken in by a mysterious academy of lady assassins. After some general training and a handy number of neatly identified flashbacks, we’re brought to the second act, where she’s unleashed on the real world. This section features an adorable Korean baby and a bizarrely endearing romance between Sook-Hee and the agent who’s been tasked with handling her, culminating in a wedding where all of the guests are hired actors. On this, the happiest day of her life, a figure from Sook-Hee’s past reemerges and the third act begins.

While the first and second act are distinctly reminiscent of La Femme Nikita, the third act felt very Kill Bill to me. We’re treated to more flashbacks and heightened character tensions before the final action-laden showdown (on a bus! With another axe!).

This is exactly the kind of movie I come to Fantasia to see—it’s far off my beaten track, and makes choices I wouldn’t expect heading into a traditional action film. The inclusion of the charmingly domestic second act was probably polarizing and not touched on in the trailer. While my viewing companion could have done without, I will be the first to admit that I was pretty stoked on it. How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (another Fantasia gem, from 2013) is more my speed in terms of Korean movies. While the plot had a few needless layers and, dare I say, a few needless characters, it rarely dragged in its 129 minutes.

For all the dense explanations and occasionally over-visited exposition, some plot elements still managed to seem thin—I’m not convinced the flashbacks explained everything they needed to. However, most of the things left unsaid can be easily justified with “that seems like it would look cool”, and yes, it did look cool. Blood gushes, windows explode frequently, axes and hammers are used with abandon, and the choreography had me hyped.

In conclusion, if you like super violence and don’t mind Asian babies with bowl cuts, you’ll definitely find this worth the watch. Fantasia has a habit of bringing sold-out shows back for the last few days of the festival, so I’d recommend keeping your eyes peeled.

nowaveSHORT FILM ALERT: This showing was preceded by Stéphane Lapointe’s “No Wave” (teaser found here). This short film, about a man who just wants to relax to some beach sounds, was riveting in concept and effectively shot. I am definitely glad my alarm is set to bird song instead.

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