Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) has a problem. She used to look different, for a start, and recalls the night when she found her life changing dramatically when she landed herself in a corridor armed with a pistol and two blades. When a group of men appeared, she knew what to do and began gunning them down, making her way through the carnage to yet more carnage as she entered a room full of doctors and set about murdering every one of them, then out to another corridor where, the bullets exhausted, she used the knives to slaughter a mass of gangsters. After that, she entered a training room where one fat man insulted her, knowing who she was, so he was first to die there, and the rest of the recruits followed suit...
It was not the most coherent manner to open a movie, as we were plunged into the action in media res, not aware of who this murdering woman was or even what she looked like for half the opening sequence as we saw events from her point of view until she had her head smashed into a mirror which snapped the film out of it and we got to see her actually destroying all those bad men. We assumed they were bad men, at least, but then again the title was The Villainess, so what if she was on the wrong side? Even as the narrative began to make itself plain there was little to indicate whether Sook-hee was doing the right thing, and we purely sympathised with her because we needed a character to identify with.
And as Sook-hee was as confused as we were, we tended to hitch our wagon to her storyline, having little other choice - the other people in this came across as having less integrity than she did, at least. But that moral ambiguity made for a curiously muted experience after such an explosive beginning, since although there were more bursts of action on their way, director Jung Byung-gil was keen to emphasise the quiet character moments as much as he was the scenes where they lurched into violence. What did become clear - and his disjointed flashback-strewn style was something of a challenge to shape up to for the casual viewer, or the less dedicated one anyway - was that our heroine was as much as a recruit as those men she despatched at the start were.
After blundering through what looked like an exclusive finishing school for lady assassins, the Chief (Kim Seo-hyeong) informs Sook-hee is to be given the full training regimen, which includes changing her face with plastic surgery for maximum anonymity (the younger version was played by Min Ye-Ji), acting classes for convincing undercover operations, and of course that weapons and combat drill to make her an invincible warrior woman. One issue, however: when this organisation picked her up, they discovered she was pregnant, but that gives them a card to play should she get out of hand, as they will give her ten years as her daughter grows up, and as long as she does exactly what they tell her to they will allow them both to live. Naturally, she cannot do anything about this blackmail, so goes along with it.
Or she does for about five years, whereupon she hits an assignment where she and the little girl move into an apartment with a friendly neighbour, Hyun-soo (Sung Jun), who neither of them are aware is also an agent of this organisation and is trying to test her by making her fall in love with him. As if that were not enough to be getting on with, Sook-hee is also keen to track down the man who killed her father as she watched from under the bed when she was a girl herself, and this is somehow connected to the shady coterie of those pulling her strings. There was even more to the plot, so much so that by the halfway point you were in a morass of wondering who was doing what to whom and why, and in truth Jung lacked real clarity on this front, but he was canny enough to draw events to a close with one of the most stunning action finales of its decade, a fight to the death that starts in an upper storey room, goes down the outside of the building, and ends up on a speeding bus. It was not quite adequate to clear up any lingering queries, but it sure did get the pulses pounding. Music by Koo Ja wan.