Berlin Review: Byun Sung-hyun’s ‘Kill Boksoon’
Most big Korean action movies are backloaded, wrapping up with three to five endings, but Byun Sung-hyun’s Kill Boksoon, which premiered as a Berlinale Special, has everything going on up front. So much so that it initially seems too much, to the extent that it sometimes feels as though there’s actually a mini-series in there bursting to get out. Surprisingly, that’s not such a crazy idea, since, once you get past the far-fetched premise—an underground network of professional contract killers, presided over the glossy conglomerate MK Ent—there’s a lot of rich character work to supplement the superbly choregraphed violence that we’ve come to expect from the region.
The title might seem like an order, like Get Carter or (more likely) Kill Bill, but in actual fact it is the nickname given to Gil Boksoon (Jeon Do-yeon), a well-to-do single mother who poses as an events planner but is actually the most feared assassin on MK’s books. We know this because we’re thrown right in at the deep end: the opening sequence pits Boksoon against a notorious Japanese yakuza: he’s wielding an ancient Samurai sword; she has a hammer from Walmart. It’s a stunning set-piece that sets up the character perfectly; Boksoon is cool, commanding, and has knack, in the style of Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes, of working several steps ahead of her opponents, a visual gimmick that’s sparingly but often very effectively used. Her mantra is “Find the weakness.” And if you can’t find one? Invent one, a battle strategy passed down from her mentor at MK.
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When she’s not bumping people off, usually in the form of faked suicides, Gil lives with her teenage daughter, Jae-Young (Kim Si-A), whose increasing hostility masks a heartbreaking unrequited love for her female schoolmate. “Killing people is simple compared to raising a kid,” says Boksoon, but even so, she wants to get out of her contract and settle down.
Which is a shame, because there’s a lot of fun to be had in the workplace. MK is run by the cool, mysterious Cha Min-kyu (Sul Kyung-gu) and his conniving sister Cha Min-hee (Esom), and their fractious relationship threatens to topple the empire when it transpires that someone is going rogue and carrying out ‘freelance’ hits in direct defiance of their criminal code of honor. And there are a lot of colorful suspects in the frame: many covet Boksoon’s prestige and reputation, and it’s a measure of her status that interns at MK respectfully act out her most inventive killings, introducing an ingenious meta level to the film with the concept of murder as performance art. Boksoon takes it all in her stride, but she’s not getting any younger, and a whole new generation is determinedly snapping at her heels. Matters reach a head when Boksoon refuses to finish a highly sensitive and important mission, an act of subordination that doesn’t sit well with HQ.
Tarantino-esque is a phrase not much used these days, but director Byun taps into the comedic quotidian element of the story, in a style that recalls Reservoir Dogs or Tarantino’s original screenplay for Natural Born Killers. More strongly, though, it seems to be directly inspired by Vivica A. Fox’s character in Kill Bill Vol. 1: the retired assassin tracked down to suburbia by The Bride. Thankfully, Byun has done more than just steal the idea, creating a character one would actually like to see a lot more of. This, of course, has as much to do with his leading lady, a tough but emotionally vulnerable killing machine (as her surprise backstory reveals) who keeps this train on its tracks and confidently kicks the ass of every bad day the office can find to throw at her.
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