It hasn’t been good this year for Korean films that have made their way to the ThingsFallApart Multiplex. Some have been ok, a couple have actually been pretty good. But not a one is likely to make the end of year lists. So, I had low expectations when loading up “Villain and Widow” – the title alone feels clumsy, and the poster looks cheesy. But then, well just read on…
“Villain and Widow” is all about a cultural antiquities smuggler called Chang-in (the always watchable Han Suk-kyu). He is beaten to the purchase of a valuable Chinese teacup by a (slightly) more legitimate antique dealer, but during “discussions”, the Police beak in, Chang-in is arrested and the other dealer accidently falls to his death, after telling Chang-in that the item is secreted in his home. Upon Chang-in’s release, he and his partner are contracted to recover the item by a “businessman”. Chang-in decides on the soft approach, masquerading as a writer, and hiring a room in the Widow’s (Yeong-ju played by Kim Hye-su) house. Yeong-ju has not taken her husbands death well, suffering from depression, and trapped in a cycle of despair, drink and sleeping pills. Things are not helped by her daughter, who although a famous child poster star, is now a teenager with real appearance issues. Can Chang-in find the teacup? The fun here is in the journey.
Now, the film is directed by Son Jae-gon, whose last film, “My Scary Girl” was well received here. This is a much more mature piece of work, but similarly dares to be just a little different. It is a romantic comedy on the face of it, but manages to mix some quite hilarious scenes with some commentary on loss, depression, suicide – you know, the unfunny parts of life.
Han Suk-kyu has always been a confident and watchable actor, once you get past that smug look on his face. But this is a character that suits him. Chang-in is in no way what you would call a hero – he is rude and selfish, hardly adverse to violence, and frankly in any other film you would be baying for his downfall. But as the film progresses, as events catch up and overtake him, you get a sense that he is a far more layered personality. Whatever his motives, you realise he does actually care for Yeong-ju, and his advice for her daughter is heartfelt.
The real shocker for me was Kim Hye-su. She is no newcomer, but somehow I have not seen a single movie she is in. And she is superb. Too many Korean movies seem to forget about middle-aged women (well technically she is the same age as me, so maybe I want to hold back on that description), preferring to cast the under 25’s. Her grief and depression is obvious. Her nervousness about the things she undertakes (taking in a male lodger, and later when things begin to dawn on her), and her frustration with her daughter just show a really complex and real character.
And that really sums up the film. On one hand, its little more than a Korean “The Ladykillers”. But on the other, it is Korean Cinema at its genre-blending best. It is well acted, sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious. The obvious happens for sure, but in still interesting ways. And it really succeeds by not providing that Hollywood ending.
It’s far from perfect. It is a touch too long, and one subplot seems to go nowhere. You could argue that Chang-in never actually strives for the near redemption he probably gains by the end of the film (and he is guilty of a heinous act right at the end, for which his ‘sorry’ is not enough).
Yet, I actually really really enjoyed this film. Will it be considered an all-time classic? Doubtful. Will it be snapped up for a Hollywood remake? Unlikely. But it does have that important ingredient – a bucket full of heart. And that makes it recommended. Highly so.