Once again I’ve come head to head with a genre-bending Korean film and as usual I feel it necessary to comment on this fact. Villain and Widow is Son Jae-gon’s third feature, after The Man Who Saw Too Much (2000) and My Scary Girl (2006) and it is, as others before me have noted, perfectly uncategorizable. Being so used to the schizophrenic generic tendencies of South Korea cinema, I felt this one actually seemed a little different, meaning that, while it embodies many genres, it doesn’t veer aggressively between them as is the norm. Instead,the film dares you to pigeonhole it, knowing full well you will come up empty-handed. Films like Save the Green Planet (2003) and The Host (2006) are both criticized and lauded for jumping with both feet from one genre to another as each new scene unfolds. I personally love that style of filmmaking and find it invigorating and exciting, when done well. I suppose it could only last as long as the local film industry develops.
Villain and Widow is a film that seems to have taken the next step. Dare I say it, it transcends genre. Korean cinema understands genre and plays with (and abuses) it with the utmost skill. It seems to me that Son is so acutely aware of the various tropes on offer that he has managed to mix and match them as he pleases, but in doing so, he has made something that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself. The previously mentioned films are nearly Brechtian in their blithe disregard for generic consistency and that can take you out of the experience if you resist it. In Villain and Widow, Son has managed to weave together elements from across the board to create a balanced narrative. I am very curious to see whether subsequent films will manage the same feat.
Han Suk-kyu plays Chang-in, a thief who is trying to get his hands on a valuable Chinese teacup that is somewhere in widower Yeon-joo (Kim Hye Soo)’s house, unbeknownst to her and her ex-child model daughter. The widower is dealing with depression, the child is an emotional wreck who is bullied in school, and the thief is up against a powerful, violent, and immature corporate heir. All the while, there is constant forward momentum as he tries to uncover the teacup not to mention some kind of relationship developing between the two leads.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. Throw in a young cop with his sights set on Yeon-joo, a nosy old neighbour, and Chang-in’s older partner in crime, and you’re left with too many strands, a number of which ultimately fall through the cracks. Despite this, the narrative is very easy to follow and Son quite skillfully guides us through this convoluted comedy/thriller/drama/etc. The film takes many unexpected turns as the situation becomes increasingly more complicated and it is full of inventive set pieces, not least a successfully protracted gag in which Chang-in keeps getting stuck in the basement. The film is never less than clever, but it can be a little much at times although it also feels slight. That sounds like a contradiction in terms but I think it comes down to a lack of urgency in the narrative, save for the crime element, and the considerable depth of the plot.
The characters are well-rounded and quite unique. While Han is perfectly cast as the slimy and debonair burglar, it is Kim who steals the show as the fragile and complicated Yeon-joo. Her daughter is also well portrayed by Ji Woo and is quite an interesting character. Having been a successful child model/actress, she is now on the verge of becoming a teenager and is already all washed-up. She is considered ugly and wants plastic surgery, which is something that gets a lot of press in South Korea. It is a little distressing to see this young girl who already seems so damaged, also have to deal with the death of her father and the bizarre behavior of her mother.
I didn’t love Villain and Widow, but I did enjoy it as it reminded me of films like The Ladykillers (1955) in how it managed to incorporate dark subject matter in what plays out like a mild-mannered comedy. I look forward to Son’s next film and I hope that he, as well as other Korean filmmakers, can successfully build on this evolution of hybrid filmmaking and provide us with some well-made and balanced offerings.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.