Shin Ha-kyun

The Villainess (2017, Jung Byung-gil)

The Villainess manages to be technically superior without ever being technically impressive. Despite editor Heo Sum-mi and cinematographer Park Jung-hun cutting together extravgent action sequences–the finale is protagonist Kim Ok-bin chasing down a bus, jumping onto it, attacking the bad guys within, getting inside, and going through multiple different fistfights. The camera is fluid–with director Jung getting his pointless fisheye lens on again–and the editing is… well. The editing isn’t smooth, because it’s intentionally choppy. Villainess drops frames for mood. The editing is successful; successful is more accurate.

The film starts with a first person action sequence. It’s like watching a video game. It’s amazing fight choreography and so on, but it’s crap narrative. Jung’s an utterly tepid action director. Usually he can at least shoot big set pieces, but sometimes he lets the technical possibilities get in front of the narrative neccessities. Jung’s got no respect for the action itself, just those technical tricks. But he’s fine at pretty much everything else he has to direct in Villainess, whether romance, melodrama, or even tragedy.

In that first sequence, Kim is an unstoppable killing machine. While I didn’t count, she probably kills forty or fifty guys. We don’t know why she’s killing them. They’re dudes, which isn’t hard to stretch into reason enough. It’s a gang of some sort. The eventual motivation given for Kim’s attack is undercooked, but nowhere near as undercooked as some of director Jung and Byeong-sik’s script. They’re much better at flirt scenes than international assassin exposition.

Caught after the killing spree–that apprehension doesn’t make logical sense, with Jung pacing out the sequence for melodramatic effect–Kim ends up in a secret government agency training young women to be assassins. They also learn cooking, stage acting, and something else. It’s basically La Femme Nikita. Kim Seo-hyeong is the strict but fair boss of the agency; it’s a thankless role. The tough assassin boss lady sending her “daughters” to death. Sung Jun is the cute desk agent (all the men are desk agents). He falls in love with lead Kim and gets assigned to be her handler–though she doesn’t know it–and romances her. He’s nice to her kid.

And Sung and Kim are pretty good together. The film’s perfectly well-acted. Whatever Jung’s directing faults, none have to do with how directs the cast. He’s fine at it. Good when it’s the flirty stuff. The Villainess always wants to be cute because then it can tug at the heartstrings. Except the script doesn’t give it any heartstrings.

In flashback, we learn how Kim ended up at the gang headquarters level. Turns out her father was killed in front of her eyes and she was taken by his murderer. Then she’s rescued by “good guy” assassin mastermind Shin Ha-kyun. She’s a kid at this point. He trains her to be his best assassin. Then they get married because she’s fallen in love with him. Then he gets killed trying to find her father’s murderer.

It takes more than half of the film’s two hour plus runtime to get all the back story out. And then, of course, there are further reveals later on because everyone’s been lying to Kim. Except the viewer knows it so you just have to watch her be humilated for her shortcomings. Sometimes it’s her intelligence, sometimes it’s her cooking, sometimes it’s her inability to kill with superhuman ability anymore. There’s no explanation for why Kim goes from super-killer to someone who wants to run run run away. Oh, she has a kid, but it’s a mystery kid and then it gets to be a toddler in no time, as Kim trains to be an assassin.

The movie where Kim learns to be an assassin while being a single parent living in an assassin school with fifty other deadly female assassins, many who don’t like her? There’s a movie. And probably one Jung would direct better.

There are third act reveals, one after the other, big and small. Then there’s the action finale.

The third act’s a misfire and Jung thinks the size of the set piece is going to make all the difference. But it doesn’t. The script’s got too many bad decisions piled up by the end. It’s failed the actors too much. Kim goes from having this great character to being Sung’s girlfriend. He even takes over the child care scenes, so Kim loses her kid’s presence. Instead, Kim goes on missions but never good ones. She always screw up. Because she’s not an unstoppable killing machine.

It’s too bad The Villainess doesn’t work out. It didn’t need to do much, just not get too stupid. Enter the script.

Kim’s good, frequently obviously capable of more. The movie just doesn’t give her scenes. Sung’s a solid goofus sweet nerd guy. Kim Seo-hyeong’s fine as the boss. Shin’s mostly good as the assassin with a heart of gold. The script’s the problem.

And Jung’s direction. If he could direct action sequences instead of just coordinate them, The Villainess might have been able to weather its stupidity.



Directed by Jung Byung-gil; written by Jung Byeong-sik and Jung Byung-gil; director of photography, Park Jung-hun; edited by Heo Sun-mi; music by Koo Ja-wan; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Kim Ok-bin (Sook-hee), Shin Ha-kyun (Joong-sang), Sung Jun (Hyun-soo), Kim Seo-hyeong (Chief Kwon), and Jo Eun-ji (Kim Seon).

The Thieves (2012, Choi Dong-hoon)

The Thieves doesn’t try to redefine the heist genre. Instead, it shows the genre’s possibilities. The film has the traditional flashbacks, double crosses, triple crosses and so on, but it also brings a tenderness. And it’s a sincere tenderness; the film resonates because of its characters, not its spectacles. However, director Choi does everything he can to make the film viewing experience spectacular. When the film achieves its singular successes, it’s because how of he mixes the ingredients.

There are a lot of characters in the film. Ten thieves and some (mostly) comic relief supporting cast. Choi opens establishing the Korean thieves–they team up with a Chinese crew for the heist–before moving into the film’s central heist. And it’s a central sequence. The Thieves is a never boring 136 minutes and the heist sequences come relatively early. Once it’s done, Choi then moves into the film’s most surprising turn. It becomes an urban adventure thriller. There’s some astounding sequences, which shouldn’t work because of tone, but Choi and his actors bind the everything together seamlessly.

There are showy performances–Kim Yun-seok, Lee Jung-jae and especially Oh Dal-su–and there are quiet performances– Kim Hye-su, Kim Soo-hyun and Simon Yam–and there are quiet performances masquerading as showy ones–Jun Ji-hyun and Kim Hae-suk. They quietly collide and create wonderful energy.

The Thieves isn’t perfect–Choi never finds the right way to end it–but it’s excellent and a lot of fun.



Directed by Choi Dong-hoon; written by Choi and Lee Gi-cheol; director of photography, Choi Yeong-hwan; edited by Shin Min-kyung; music by Jang Young-gyu; produced by Ahn Soo-hyun; released by Showbox.

Starring Kim Yun-seok (Macau Park), Lee Jung-jae (Popeye), Kim Hye-su (Pepsi), Jun Ji-hyun (Yanicall), Kim Hae-suk (Chewing Gum), Oh Dal-su (Andrew), Kim Soo-hyun (Jampano), Simon Yam (Chen), Angelica Lee (Julie), Tsang Kwok Cheung (Johnny), Ju Jin-mo (the chief inspector), Choi Deok-mun (the casino manager), Yee Soo-jung (Tiffany) and Shin Ha-kyun (the art gallery director).

Murder, Take One (2005, Jang Jin)

Usually when I say Korean films effortlessly mix genre, I mean it in a good way. It’s still impressive in Murder, Take One; director Jang definitely makes the final ingredient a surprise, but it’s a questionable choice….

The majority of the film—albeit on a reduced budget—is successful. It’s a police procedural with one caveat, the entire investigation is being broadcast live. It’s unclear why the police department is teaming with the TV producers, but it isn’t particularly important. The case is interesting enough (turning out to be Agatha Christie influenced) and the acting is good. Jang is able to make Murder, Take One feel absurdist, while still reasonably grounded.

Until the end, when he doesn’t just take away from the absurdist nature of the television show, he brings in a whole new element. It doesn’t destroy the film—it just pushes it below the fail line.

The acting is, as I said before, all good. Lead Cha Seung-won takes a while to get going—his first scene is opposite Shin Ha-kyun, who’s a far more nuanced actor—but he eventually turns in a solid performance. Ryu Seong-ryong is good as Cha’s colleague and initial competitor (they’re both racing to solve the case before the TV producers muddle it too much) and Jang gives them a nice arc.

Murder, Take One moves well—the first hour flies past; Jang knows how to plot a procedural. His composition’s decent, though he cuts too fast.

It’s generally okay.



Written and directed by Jang Jin; directors of photography, Choi Yun-man and Kim Joon-young; edited by Kim Sang-beom and Kim Jae-beom; music by Han Jae-kwon; produced by Lee Taek-dong; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Cha Seung-won (Choi Yeon-gi), Shin Ha-kyun (Kim Young-hun), Shin Goo (Yun), Park Jung-ah (Han Mu-suk), Jeong Jae-yeong (Bully), Kim Ji-su (Jung Yun-jung), Kim Jin-tae (Oh) and Kong Ho-su (Dr. Han).

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