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Sooh-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is a mentally disturbed, ballistic-bladed assassin who upon failing to kill her father’s murderer is surreptitiously re-trained by a covert group of assassins to be a calmer, more deadly, hatchet slashing killer where if she doesn’t do their bidding, her cute wee daughter and second husband will be slaughtered.

It’s common for film studios and critics to describe movies based on other known films as to tap into an audience’s imagination and engage their interest. However, this can have a negative backlash especially if the film, action-wise, doesn’t fulfill it’s promises or match up with name-dropped movies.

Kim Ok-bin in Korean Action Movies The Villainess

The Villainess Kim Ok-bin Korean Action movies

Before watching The Villainess, one of the best korean action movies this summer, which was directed by former stuntman wannabe Jung Byung-gil (Action Boys), reviews touted that Sooh-hee was the female John Wick (JW)  and it was a better revenge film than Atomic Blonde (AB), pointing out Lorraine Broughton’s (Charleze Theron) character flaws as to why Sooh-hee is superior. With these evaluations, I was already predisposed toward disliking The Villainess.

After The Villainess‘ opening fight and with each successive action sequence, it was obvious that Kim Ok-bin is nowhere close to being a female John Wick and contrasting her to Theron’s Broughton role was ludicrous. Point is, by comparing this South Korean bloodbath thriller to John Wick or Atomic Blonde, it didn’t do justice to The Villainess.

The Villainess fights were more creative and inventive than JW and AB, not due to the physicality of the actors or the creative fight choreography but from Jung’s innovative camera strategy on how the fights were shot.

Some Korean filmmakers have made their mark based on the inventive use of how their movies were filmed like Park Chan-wook‘s Night Fishing (2011) that was entirely shot by iPhone and Bon Joon-ho’s Influenza (2004), which used security cameras from a toilet, ATM machines, a bank, store, subway station, a parking garage and a post office.

Ping-Pong Fight Choreography in The Villainess

The Villainess Kim Ok-bin Korean Action movies

While the United States and the People’s Republic of China invented ping-pong diplomacy, Jung has invented what I call ping-pong fight choreography.

Imagine if a ping-pong ball was a camera and if the ball was being struck back and forth not between players with paddles but was ricocheting between fighters. The ping-pong ball’s POV images would be tight, shaking camera angles, laced with rapid zoom ins and zoom outs away and toward the fighters, and feature snappy rolling pans, tilts and spins.

Now take the ping-pong ball and hit it to the ground, up in the air, through a window or a door, off a wall, out of a three story window, etc, then use all the fight’s offensive and defensive reaction shots of the actors and spatial displacement between them seen in the ball’s visual field…and that’s how the fights look in The Villainess.

The Villainess Kim Ok-bin Korean Action movies

It’s ingenious and adds extra kinetic energy to the action, which if it was shot with a wide angle at 24 fps, it would look monotonous and reflect minimal training chops of the actors involved. This is one obvious difference between action movies John Wick and The Villainess, because JW‘s filmmakers chose to film the action with a wide angle at 24 fps.

However, an unobvious difference is that The Villainess used 63 days of their 70-day shooting schedule to do action. It’s the luxury of shooting action in Asia. For decades, Chinese action stars, including Jet Li and Jackie Chan, have grumbled to me that in Hollywood, so little time is put aside for shooting fights in the action movies.

The Action Fights in The Villainess

The Villainess Kim Ok-bin Korean Action movies

Jung explains that the Villainess was inspired by his own short film Standing on the Knife saying,

“I wanted to show a woman’s life, one who was fated from birth to become a villainess. Throughout the film (except the finale duel against her dad’s killer), Sooh-hee never fights one-on-one. Wherever she goes, she faces many foes at the same time, thus it was critical to ensure all action scenes were new and never overstayed their welcome.”

Though trained in Korean martial arts since childhood (holds a 3rd degree black belt in hapkido and a 2nd degree in taekwondo), the 30-year-old Kim Ok-bin, who has a 141 IQ and likes building computers, still had to spend two months at the Seoul Action School to learn how to use a long sword, dagger, pistol, rifle and the chop ’em up battle ax.

During the opening fight, while walking through corridors and staircases, and armed with guns, knives and an ax, Kim Ok-bin (a stuntman wearing a head mounted camera, i.e., Kim Ok-bin’s POV) takes on 40-50 assailants, maybe more or less, in what looks like a single take. There’s no sense of motive behind the killing it’s just unabashed bashing.

It’s the beauty of ping-pong choreography, it hides so much so well, and it doesn’t matter, because she quickly enters a large room filled with 20 villains. The action snaps around, we see Kim Ok-bin, and the ball keeps rolling by using a hand held camera.

Best Action Movies

The Villainess Kim Ok-bin Korean Action movies

Another thing to look for, which is tricky, is that in later fights actors aren’t striking with any force but are reaching out with their arms or hands and touching each other. Yet with the ping pong camera movements, slower frame rate and having more blood gushes than water fountains at an Italian Piazza, it looks like a lot is going on. Watch without sound.

Stunt coordinator Kwon Gui-duck and DP Park Jung-hun keep the ball afloat and give the film fights a winning ping-pong match score of 21-0. Jung is like a magician with camera choreography because the key of being a good magician is to distract the audience enough so that they don’t see the abracadabra of the visual trick or illusion.

A weakness of ping-pong choreography, like many novel fight approaches, is that it will quickly become old and boring unless new innovations are added. Toward the end of John Wick: Chapter 2, the combination rhythms of shoot-flip-shoot face-punch-shoot body-kick-shoot-etc, were too repetitive. Director Chad Stahelski might keep this in mind while making JW-3.

The beauty of watching Jet Li, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan action movies is that you can see the magic. The more you watch their films, the more you see, and the more you can further appreciate what those actors were doing. Sometimes less is more isn’t always the best way to go.

Well Go USA
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