The Villainess opens first-person shooter-style in a gangrened subterranean hallway, strewn with filthy wreckage with little context and plenty of enemies, multiplying exponentially and shouting at what is most certainly an intrusion. Bullets are dispensed without fuss, guns reloaded, or swapped for knives in deliberate close-up. The camera has yet to cut, non-stop freneticism, sprays of crimson. Behind every door awaits a batch of new adversaries: befuddled meth cooks in a laboratory or a brigade of besuited gentlemen on an upper floor, each and every one cut down. The body count reaches at least half a hundred before the final door creaks open to a wood-floored gymnasium wherein a dozen menacing goons line up as if for instructed group exercise, brandishing knives in lieu of jump ropes. As in a videogame, no one moves until you do. Just when the jolting action should become repetitive, the camera hurls into the glass mirror, exposing at last the identity of the adept killer to be one petite woman with big eyes and a short brown bob. That the masterly swordswoman and gunfighter is female is a refreshing surprise, still a sorely uncommon sight in cinema, but all the more radical and especially rare in a film from South Korea. Director Jung Byun-gil marries the country’s two greatest entertainment exports, violent vengeance and melodrama, into an arresting thrill ride, adorned with only the most showy of showdowns. Recruited by the Korean Intelligence Agency, trained assassin Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) assumes a fake identity to carry out assignments for a contractual ten years. Meanwhile, a handsome man, perhaps another agent with unclear motives or instructions, keeps tabs on her by way of romance. It’s a touch of Mr. and Mrs. Smith mixed into the more obvious referents of Kill Bill and La Femme Nikita to which the film pays obvious debt. The Villainess at its heart is a story of betrayal and deceit; a woman imprisoned by lies as both child and adult. I sat down with director Jung on the eve of the film’s closing of the New York Asian Film Festival to discuss his film.
NOTEBOOK: The Villainess is your third film, but you started your career training to become a stuntman. How did you come into filmmaking?
JUNG BYUNG-GIL: When I was young I wanted to become a painter, but I also juggled several dreams. An art director, an actor. I just wanted to be in the film industry for some reason and after I finished my military service in Korea, I had the opportunity to attend Seoul Action school for six months. It was there that I met actors, stunt people, and where I realized I was compelled toward directing rather than acting. For me it didn’t feel like a huge leap because of my interests in painting and comics. It was just a transition from the canvas to the screen.
NOTEBOOK: How did this story originate?
JUNG: The origins for The Villainess come from Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita. It was my way of paying homage to his work while putting a Korean spin on it. As you can see from the title, I would characterize this more as the love story of a sad woman.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a little more about writing the romantic elements of the story? I found it to be a counterbalance to the action, and also one that might invite a different type of viewer.
JUNG: As in my debut, Action Boys, I do like to incorporate not just melodrama but also romantic comedy, and when I was first conceived of The Villainess I arrived at the melodramatic narrative, and the action was sort of added onto that framework.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your approach to creating the action sequences, and how your background as a stuntman comes into play?
JUNG: I definitively try to think of new methods of trying to do those action sequences. I try to think of what sort of equipment would be most useful. We use smaller cameras to set up beneath the motorcycle wheels to get a fresh take. Fresh and new camera angles are the defining features of an action movie, so those were heavily considered. Sometimes handheld camera techniques for a more visceral experience for the viewers, and sometimes rather than having the DP follow the stuntman, we have the stuntman carry the cameras on themselves.
NOTEBOOK: Were you actively avoiding action scenes from other movies?
JUNG: For the motorcycle scene, because to my knowledge there’s not another film that has done that, I didn’t have a reference point for that scene. I was trying not to have a reference point because I’d inevitably copy what’s in the film. For the bus sequence, that’s kind of an upgrade from a scene in my previous film, Confession of Murder. The opening sequence of The Villainess, which was shot in the first person perspective, not that I referred to this film, but there was Hardcore Henry. I noticed that that used a lot of jump cuts and had a lot of gunfire, but for The Villainess there were a lot of sequences where we wanted single takes and longer takes. But rather than gunfire, the sword fighting was a bigger element here.
NOTEBOOK:I appreciated the variety of weaponry.
JUNG: That’s because in Korea we can’t have guns. After seeing Hardcore Henry, I said to myself, if it’s too similar we’re going to have to scratch what we’re doing. I feel The Villainess can differentiate itself from that film. There’s also been a lot of stuff going on regarding virtual reality and that’s been a certain influence regarding first-person perspectives.
NOTEBOOK: It’s a bit of neat trickery because if you didn’t know what this film was about, you probably wouldn’t have guessed we are in the POV of Sook-hee, a woman.
JUNG: That sequence took six shooting days. I really thought about how I was going to transition from first-person to third-person while keeping that take. Using the mirror would automatically reveal her identity as well as transition into third-person, and once we made that apparent to the audience, it would also grab their attention and pique their curiosity. A little earlier in the sequence, there was actually a mirror detail that shows her silhouette, but I took that out in the editing process, so the version that will be released theatrically is actually 40 seconds shorter than what was shown at Cannes.
NOTEBOOK: Female assassin movies, or more generally female led action movies are still been far and few between since La Femme Nikita. It’s still relatively uncommon in America, and even more so in Korea.
JUNG: It’s literally impossible to find or make this kind of film in Korea. It’s really hard to find funding, let alone a film that has a female protagonist. I would say I was very lucky because I was having drink with a studio exec and he told me, ”tell us what you want, we really want to work with you. If you tell us what you want, we’ll do it.“ He essentially had a lot of trust in me. Working on that, I wrote the screenplay in about two weeks, sent it over to him, asking if he’d keep his word and get this made. He said he had a lot of fun reading the script, let’s do it.
But even while we were trying to get this off the ground, there was a lot of prejudice in Korea about an action film with female lead. It’s going to flop, they’d say. But I have this rebellious instinct. When people say I can’t do things, all the more reason for me to try and do it. I felt it was good timing for this kind of movie to be released in Korea. I also anticipated that it would get more positive responses abroad.
NOTEBOOK: When you say good timing for a release in Korea, are you referring to the current socio-political climate?
JUNG: Not so much the socio-political circumstances, but more so it was not done in the movies.
NOTEBOOK: So you’re speaking more from an industry perspective. I ask because there have been works of Korean literature and films, The Handmaiden for example, as of late that have garnered much attention and could be read as feminist, as perhaps your film might to a certain extent.
JUNG: I feel like that’s because the novels and films that are exported abroad are things that are done well, and those happen to be the exception. In reality, films that have females protagonists are less than 5%, and films like The Villainess are maybe once a year, if at all.