Big Screen Berkeley: ‘I Am the Blues’ and ‘The Villainess’

‘I Am the Blues’

If you took my advice and checked out the documentary Rumble last week, you learned some fascinating lessons about the birth of American popular music, including the role played by rural blues progenitor Charley Patton. Now I Am the Blues (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, September 8th) brings the music into the 21st century, focusing on a dozen or so aging practitioners of this uniquely American art form.

Filmed in small towns in or near the Mississippi delta – towns with colorful names like Bentonia, Tutwiler, and Como – I Am the Blues allows viewers to sit back and rest awhile as old-timers such as Little Freddie King, Lazy Lester, Carol Fran and Henry Lynn perform and tell stories about the good (and not so good) old days.

Director Daniel Cross also takes a back seat, letting his subjects speak for themselves. There’s no narration and very little intervention from Cross; no ‘outsiders’ (such as usual ‘rock doc’ suspects Keith Richards and Bono) to distract and annoy us.

If the film has a focal point, it’s Chicago blues legend Bobby Rush. Now in his 80s (but looking 20 years younger), Rush left the delta in the early 1950s and has been singing the blues ever since. He has some stories to tell.


Other highlights include the great Barbara Lynn (headlining next month’s Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans) performing her top ten crossover hit ‘You’ll Lose a Good Thing’ and the avuncular L.C. Ulmer, who proclaims “This guitar is a bible. I ain’t never been a fan of a gun – gimme that guitar string, I’ll kill you with that.” Sounds like a plan to me.

‘The Villainess’

Those more favorably inclined to firearms – or knives, for that matter – should consider Ak Nyeo (The Villainess), opening on Friday at San Francisco’s AMC Metreon 16. No East Bay dates are currently scheduled.

Director Byung-Gil Jung seems intent on setting a new cinematic body count record from the get-go: within The Villainess‘s first six minutes, no fewer than 57 people come to a gruesome end – and I may have missed a couple.

Shortly thereafter there’s an unintentional moment of hilarity, as a policeman proclaims “secure the hard drive no matter what! If that leaks, it’ll be a bloodbath!” Needless to say, The Villainess is not recommended for those with an aversion to onscreen violence.

The Villainess is Sook-Hee, a young woman whose bloodthirsty exploits have caught the eye of an unidentified South Korean government agency. Abducted by said agency and compelled to undergo plastic surgery, Sook-Hee emerges with a new identity (stage actress) and a new task (serve as an undercover assassin for ten years, after which she can comfortably retire).


A complex tale of revenge, the film occasionally succumbs to narrative incoherence. The amorphous nature of Sook-Hee’s employers and the director’s penchant for flashbacks repeatedly muddy the waters; who’s doing what to whom when, and why are they doing it?

Perhaps best described as an Asian riff on Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, The Villainess may not make a lot of sense but succeeds on its own terms. Blending ultraviolence with florid melodrama, it offers a welcome respite from the ironic, wisecracking American action film.