“Villain and Widow” is one of those genre blending Korean films which is difficult to categorise, but which seems to have been advertised as a romantic comedy of sorts. The same was also true of director Son Jae Gon’s first outing, “My Scary Girl”, and the film shows the same kind of skilful and often unexpected mixing of different themes and motifs. Playing the titular couple are popular actor Han Suk Kyu (“White Night”) and the always impressive Kim Hye Su (“Tazza: The High Rollers”), with support from Lee Jang Woo (“Smile Again”) and first timers Ji Woo and U-Kiss teen idol Dong Ho.
Kim Hye Su plays depressed widow Hyun Joo, whose life has hit a real slump. Still failing to get over the tragic death of her husband, her days revolve around dealing with her bad tempered, ex-child model teenage daughter Sang Ah (Ji Woo) while trying to come up with a way of getting herself out of crippling debt. As a last resort, she decides to rent out the upper floor of their home, taking in the pleasant seeming writer Chang In (Han Suk Kyu). However, unbeknownst to her, Chang In is actually a criminal who has been hired to steal a valuable Chinese antique cup that her husband stole, which he believes is hidden somewhere in the house.
With so many films being made to neatly fit into easy to advertise genre boxes, “Villain and Widow” really does come as somewhat of a breath of fresh air. The film is impossible to pigeonhole, though in the best possible way, and it’s a tribute to Son Jae Gon that he manages to meld all its various elements together into such an entertaining and engrossing whole, even more so than he did with “My Scary Girl”. Possibly the best way to describe the film is as a comically humanistic depiction of individuals coming to terms with their lives and problems, with a little romance and suspense thrown in along the way. Certainly, the film isn’t a love or relationship story by any means, as although Hyun Joo and Chang In do come together quite early on in the proceedings, their dynamic is far more complex and unbalanced than is usual for onscreen couples, and never develops along the expected lines or comes to the usual unsatisfying saccharine conclusion. At the same time, thanks to a fine script and convincing performances from Han Suk Kyu and Kim Hye Su in particular (who surely by now must rank as one of the most consistently excellent Korean actresses), the film is actually more moving and genuine than the vast majority of its peers.
Depression and the fear of a wasted life are major themes, and are treated seriously despite the film’s more jokey aspects, with Son managing to combine the bitter and the sweet without undermining either the drama or comedy. Things do get quite grim at times, dealing with suicide, medication, alcoholism and loneliness, though in a believable rather than melodramatic manner, never obviously tugging at the heartstrings. In this respect, the film sees its characters struggling to rediscover and fall in love with themselves rather than each other, and is surprisingly mature and insightful in its treatment of both its younger and older protagonists.
While this may well make the film sound rather highbrow, it also delivers on a more basic level, with some very funny scenes and an effective central mystery and treasure hunt that keep notching up the tension. The film is actually all the more amusing for being grounded, with Chang In’s would-be suaveness and occasional incompetence and pratfalls making for most of the laughs. The film has a few very well constructed gag set pieces, including a drawn out though hilarious sequence in which he becomes repeatedly trapped in the basement. Subterfuge and deceptions are very much the order of the day, with a nice line in farcical misunderstandings, and some well timed, good old fashioned slapstick. At the same time, Son does introduce a few flashes of violence, often quite shockingly so, and never lets the viewer forget that Chang In is capable of considerable ruthlessness and is by no means a nice guy or traditional romantic comedy leading man.
It’s this kind of contrast which is at the heart of “Villain and Widow” and that makes it such interesting and enjoyable viewing. A far more substantial film than might have been expected from the premise, it hopefully won’t slip between the cracks due to its refusal to comply with the usual tired genre clichés.
Jae-gon Son (director) / Jae-gon Son (screenplay)
CAST: Suk-kyu Han … Chang-in
Hye-su Kim Hye-su Kim … Yeong-ju
Dong-ho Shin Dong-ho Shin
Won-sang Park Won-sang Park