“Killing people is simple compared to raising a kid.”
Any mother will recognize the emotion with which veteran Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon delivers this line, playing ruthless assassin Gil Bok-soon. I may know nothing about the ability to mark an opponent’s neck with a felt-tip marker, but I am well-familiar with the exhaustion and constant gnawing in your mind, especially when you’re a single parent.
When the trailer first dropped for Kill Boksoon, as it was making waves at the 73 Berlin International Film Festival last month, I was immediately intrigued. After all, I had been watching Jeon’s popular K-drama Crash Course in Romance. In it, Jeon plays a former handball champion now running a banchan (side dishes in Korean cuisine) shop, and raising a teenager who is not her biological daughter. Unlike other parents, her character isn’t concerned about her adopted daughter’s grades, but her happiness.
Kickass thriller Kill Boksoon, then, provides a delightful irony. Here was another mom committed to providing a good life for her daughter—except she’s a deadly assassin. Just as Crash Course in Romance is wholesome, Kill Boksoon is a stylish and slick action film, featuring exhilarating fight sequences and cool camera angles to amp up the drama.
The plot keeps it simple. We meet Boksoon on the job. She’s been assigned to kill a Korean-born Japanese gangster. How will Boksoon match up to a yakuza? Admirably at first, but then using her wits. Turns out, she has a supermarket run to make.
The scene immediately transfers to the shopping aisles of a grocery store in a transition smooth as butter. And the plot just keeps building. There’s some level of story about Gil Boksoon being part of a company of gangsters with strict rules, and that a renewal of her work contract is coming up. She has to contend with both professional rivalry and the eyerolls and smart-alecky answers from her sassy daughter Gil Jae-yeong (Kim Si-a).
If this isn’t enough to complicate Boksoon’s life, there’s also the mom group to contend with—mothers of Jae-yeong’s classmates at a private school. Making small talk over a high tea set up, she describes her job as event planning when fielding questions about her personal life.
Spy stories or yarns about assassins are an intriguing opportunity for character study. The idea of a mild-mannered character with a secret identity tickles a lot of curiosities. How did they end up doing the job they do? How do they deal with co-workers or families? What does a bad day for them look like? These portrayals become downright fascinating if the protagonist is an unlikely one—the surprise factor is always a neat trick.
In the case of Kill Boksoon, that element comes from the charged relationship between Boksoon and her daughter. As a professional, Boksoon is ready for any challenge, no matter how lethal. She is never one to back away from a fight, even if she’s considered its many outcomes and the potential to lose. However, she constantly finds herself letting her guard down, unable to reveal her true identity. Her daughter has her own set of struggles at school, which she can’t take to her mom, especially when Boksoon’s work keeps interrupting her attempts to connect with her daughter.
The story does not matter much, however. The film is firmly centered on Jeon, and she delivers. She is at once alluring and efficient with her kills.
In one scene, Boksoon is gently coerced into meeting young trainees of her gang. When she obliges, she finds herself goaded into combat with an intern. The way Jeon alternates from being a cheerleader, to a modest mentor, to a veteran teaching a young upstart (and her conniving colleague) a lesson, is a treat to watch. Jeon calibrates her performance just so, and her co-stars match her move for move. Despite the contrived scenario, the actors bring it to life—and it was a pleasant surprise to see a number of K-drama and movie regulars such as Koo Kyo-hwan, Esom and Lee Jae-wook appear as supporting characters.
However, Jeon truly shines. Her chameleon-like ability to turn from a concerned mom to a dangerous killer, without the viewer doubting either aspect of her persona, is riveting. It was a reminder of her range as an actress; highlights from her varied filmography include a widowed mother beset by tragedy in Secret Sunshine (2007), which won her an award for best actress at Cannes, as well as an ingénue in The Housemaid (2010).
Like many Korean action films, there’s plenty of bloodshed and bludgeoning to make a certain section of fans happy. Even though I’m not in it for the gore, Kill Boksoon finds a kind of terrifying beauty to such moments. Throw in some philosophical one-liners about life, promises made and broken, and honor in the middle of all the slo-mo clashes, and it becomes an entertaining watch. What’s harder: Being a ruthless assassin or motherhood? I hope you never have to find out.
Director: Byun Sung-hyun
Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Sol Kyung-gu, Esom, Koo Kyo-hwan
Release Date: March 31, 2023 (Netflix)
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.