Action movies have always been male-centric. In the bad old days, women used to be relegated to the role of eye candy. But as the audience and the film industry progressed, actresses started to do as much action as their male counterparts. Eventually, they got top billing, and sometimes they didn’t even require a man as a co-star because they were getting kicked in the chest on the big screen. However, the truth of the matter is that although it takes a long time to break the glass ceiling, it only takes a few seconds to put it back together and prevent women from being the stars of their respective movies. If you just look at the past few years, you’ll notice that there has been a boom in the action genre, and yet it’s only bubbling with machoism. Thankfully, this year alone, we’ve already gotten two amazing action films, “Jung_E” and “Furies,” which put their actresses front and center. And we’ve got a third candidate in the form of “Kill Boksoon.”
Written and directed by Byun Sung-hyun, “Kill Boksoon” is a play on the name of its protagonist, Gil Bok-soon (Jeon Do-yeon), because she’s a killer and since there are some characters who want to kill Gil Bok-soon. Why, though? Well, Gil works for an agency called MK. ENT, whose main business is to assassinate people. The way MK. ENT functions is that it employs a wide array of “companies” of assassins. They’ve a strict set of rules, and if these companies follow them and only kill the people that are assigned to them, they’ll get paid handsomely. If someone breaks the rules or starts to kill people on their own, they won’t get paid, and they’ll be promptly killed for hampering the business. Director Cha Min-kyu (Sol Kyung-gu) has a soft spot for Gil because they go way back, and she’s a legend when it comes to eliminating targets. Gil finds herself at a crossroads as, on the personal front, she’s facing issues connecting with her daughter Gil Jae-yeong (Kim Si-a), and on the professional front, she’s skeptical about renewing her contract with MK. ENT. However, she has to arrive at a decision, or else she’ll end up losing her daughter and her own life.
The best way to describe the writing of “Kill Boksoon” is by saying that it’s well-balanced. I know I use that term a lot in all of my reviews. But I think it applies to Byun Sung-hyun’s work in this film the most. He goes into great detail about the inner workings of the MK. ENT and the directors’ relationships with their companies and those companies’ relationships with their employers. He shows how the assassinations that are conducted by the most elite assassins, like Gil, are recorded as a “show.” These shows are then recreated as live-action sets where aspiring assassins train before actually entering the field. Then there’s the character drama between Gil, Cha Min-Kyu, Cha Min-hee (Esom), Han (Koo Kyo-hwan), Gwang-man (Park Kwang-jae), Yoon-seok (Jang In-sub), Hyun-chul (Choi Byung-mo), Soo-geun (Kim Ki-cheon), and, of course, Gil Jae-yeong. And while the exploration of all these interconnected lives is intricate, the mother-daughter drama is the one that hits home. It has that sense of relatability, especially for kids who are gay and are trying to find a way to come out to their parents, because they know exactly how they’re going to react. Sung-hyun goes a step further to show parents that, despite being adults, they have a lot to learn from their kids. If that’s not wholesome as hell, I don’t know what is.
Byun Sung-hyun is in no hurry to get anywhere with his characters, which leads to the slow pacing of “Kill Boksoon.” So, don’t go in expecting non-stop action, and let yourself marinate in the long discussions about ethics, morality, lies, truths, and what it means to be a parent at a time when kids are learning so much from a very young age. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready for the high-octane action and be prepared to be blown away by the diversity in the nature of the set-pieces. The first fight of the film between Shinichiro Oda/Kim Kwang-li (Hwang Jung-min) and Gil uses a CGI train passing in front of the lens to create the illusion of in-betweens like we usually see in animation. In order to highlight Cha Min-kyu’s skills, the camera effortlessly zooms around him while he kills everyone. And then he goes into action-comedy territory while channeling the spirit of the gang shootout scene in “Bad Boys 2” for the fight in Soo-geun’s restaurant. In addition to all that, the movie makes the best use of the “planning one’s fight moves before actually making a move” that was popularized by Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” movies. I’ll go as far as to say that it’s even better than the ones in the “Sherlock Holmes” movies. Therefore, a big round of applause for cinematographer Cho Hyung-rae, editor Kim Sang-bum, and those in charge of production design, costume design, hair and make-up, stunts, action choreography, visual effects, special effects, and sound design.
The performances from the cast are phenomenal. Jeon Do-yeon is fantastic as an assassin. The confidence that she exudes is so infectious. The way she smiles, as if she’s enjoying being the best fighter in a room full of overconfident men, made me hoot and scream at my small screen. If this had been a theatrical release, I would’ve been doing the same from my seat. And I would’ve been crying all over my seat watching all the scenes featuring Jeon Do-yeon and Kim Si-a because that’s exactly what I did while watching it in my home. Their chemistry is so organic, and the way they display Bok-soon and Jae-yeong’s efforts to be vulnerable in front of each other hit me really hard in the emotional corner of my soul. Although Sol Kyung-gu and Esom keep vying for the position of the #1 villain in “Kill Boksoon,” I think Esom takes the lead by a few inches due to her gleeful wickedness. As for the supporting cast, Koo Kyo-hwan, Park Kwang-jae, Jang In-sub, Choi Byung-mo, and Kim Ki-cheon are too perfect. Then there’s Lee Yeon as the adorable Boksoon superfan, Kim Yeong-ji, who steals the show and has the potential to steal your heart. If someone tells me that Lee Yeon idolizes Jeon Do-yeon in real life, I will believe them in a second. That’s how convincing Jeon Do-yeon is in her role.
The minor issues that I have with “Kill Boksoon” are the pacing and the overall hazy look. If I sit with it some more, I think I’ll end up being more forgiving towards the pacing because it eventually elevates the drama, the tension, and the comedy. I can’t say the same about the haze because it really messes with the colors and the shot compositions in the film. Other than that, Byun Sung-hyun’s film is a must-watch, especially since it’s coming out during a time when the market is oversaturated with steroid-injected male bodies and nonsensical fight sequences. Additionally, the fact that Sung-hyun manages to comment on how parents should deal with their kids who are still exploring their identities and how they should be open to criticism from their kids between all that terrific action is truly mind-blowing. I know that “John Wick 4” is currently one of the biggest action movies right now, and filmmakers are raring to copy the hell out of it. However, I’d like them to emulate “Kill Boksoon” as well. Then we will get actresses in their 50s doing all kinds of action-heavy set-pieces while delivering a nuanced dramatic performance, thereby giving us a break from the stereotypical and banal male protagonists created with the sole purpose of boosting male ego.