Consider this storyline for a moment. We have here our protagonist: a highly-ranked assassin at a corporate monopoly of killers.
She also happens to be a single mother to a moody fifteen-year-old who’ll barely look up from her phone when she’s speaking to her mother.
Kill Boksoon (2023) is director Byun Sung-hyun’s latest action thriller. It premiered in February, before its official Netflix release last Friday (31 May), at the Berlin International Film Festival.
If you were wondering how he managed to tie all of that together with grace in two hours, you’re not alone.
Surprisingly, Kill Boksoon is playful and funny, with no dearth of suspense and thrilling action sequences to rival the most violent slasher directors. But most importantly, it is endearing.
The film follows Gil Bok-soon, a highly respected senior assassin at MK, the biggest company of assassins which dominates all other companies. Her contract is almost up, and she’s been wondering about whether to continue. Especially with a teenager at home who doesn’t know a thing about her mother’s exploits.
She receives a job, or a ‘show’ in the lingo, to murder the 20-year-old son of a presidential hopeful after a college admissions scandal. And she has to make it look like a suicide. But something stops her skillful hand, setting off a chain reaction of consequences and power plays with her life and the future of the assassin industry at stake.
Kill Boksoon is like Kill Bill (dir. Quentin Tarantino) if the Bride had managed to raise her child and balance her killing jobs with parenting duties.
In fact, you can see traces of Kill Bill everywhere, besides the title. The martial arts fight scenes, the council scenes and the image of a lone woman against many.
You can even see it in the way Byun shoots a child interrupting a show. It’s also reflected in the way Byun plays hard and fast with genre expectations.
It’s a film full of contrasts. There are bloody and gory in one moment, mundane and quotidian in another, then somehow funny and playful in the most violent scenes.
There are glimpses of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (yes, even the incest) in the masterful one-take fight scenes, with sprinkles of Kingsman (dir. Matthew Vaughn) in its cinematography.
But where the film really shines is its more quiet, introspective moments with Bok-soon and her daughter, Jae-yeong.
The mother-daughter relationship here is another shade of the relationship in Everything Everywhere All at Once (dir. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Schneirt).
Bok-soon tries her best to connect with her daughter. But with so many walls built around herself, it’s impossible to get Jae-yeong to let down hers.
As the film progresses both are forced to reckon with their closed-off relationship, especially as secrets unravel and things get dire.
Ultimately, one cannot help but read this film as a critique on patriarchy and capitalism.
Bok-soon is a highly intelligent and prescient woman who’s always one step ahead of her opponents, but she’s buckling under the pressure of killing people and raising a child. It looks like even rich, skilled assassins feel the weight of the division of labour.
Even her daughter faces the wrath of teenage incels in a heartbreaking subplot exploring acceptance, love, and connection.
And look no further for a critique of corporate greed than Bok-soon’s company, a monopoly that makes ruthless decisions in its own interests: a bloody reality that’s not too far off from the current system of worker exploitation.
If even one of the brightest stars in the company can buckle under its amoral iron fist, imagine what it can do to everyone else.
Kill Boksoon thrives in these moments of human connection, moral quandaries, and dilemmas.
The blood and gore never feels overdone. It’s accompanied by light and crisp performances by the actors — particularly lead actress Jeon Do-yeon of Secret Sunshine fame.
Byun drives a story that deftly balances humour with sobering premises. Referential, playful, and thrilling all the same, Kill Boksoon is a film that earns its place in your watchlist.
Watch the trailer below: