Kill Boksoon (2023)

Director: Byun Sung-hyun

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Sol Kyung-gu, Esom, Koo Kyo-hwan, Kim Si-a, Lee Yeon

Writer/director Byun Sung-hyun opens his latest film with the intriguing sight of a tattooed Yakuza member asleep on the streets. His initial complaints of being cold transform into shock upon awakening, realizing he's outside and in the presence of assassin Gil Boksoon (Jeon Do-yeon). She matches the coldness by telling the Yakuza figure that, if he wanted to die of natural causes, he should've led a better life.

Inspired by her daughter's words, Boksoon offers a fair fight. As the Yakuza member uses his blade to counter the assassin's store-bought axe, what unfolds is a thrilling battle between two exceptionally talented fighters. As the proceedings become more trouble than initially realized, Boksoon ends the fight with a gun as she needs to get to the store before it closes. This captures the difficult balance in the single mother's life, as she fulfils the maternal role while working as a legendary assassin known as "Kill Boksoon."

The best killer hired by MK ENT, Boksoon's status as a masterful assassin is contrasted with her feelings of struggling as a mother. With her contract up for renewal, she considers letting it expire to focus on repairing the relationship with her daughter, Jae-yeong (Kim Si-a). Matters worsen when Boksoon becomes the center of a kill or be killed situation.

At work, Boksoon feels at ease while imagining her opponent's next moves and offering advice to make a fake suicide look real. This is at odds with her unease as a parental figure, and Jeon wonderfully conveys these duelling feelings. The assassin was a victim of her father's violence, and she endeavours to break the cycle of trauma by ensuring Jae-yeong has a better life. These best intentions result in the pair struggling to open up to each-other, keeping secrets regarding their true selves due to fearing the fallout. The daughter's fears involve her attraction to a female classmate, while the mother's regarding her profession are compounded by discovering her daughter takes after her in more ways than realized.

The lead owes everything to Chairman Cha (Sol Kyung-gu), the man who looks after her through thick and thin, while aware that there's no love lost with the Chairman's jealous sister, Director Cha (Esom). This intercompany push-and-pull between the siblings is key to the story, and involves some of this world's many compelling characters. This includes aspiring assassin Kim Yeong-ji (Lee Yeon), who Boksoon guides, and talented assassin Hee-seong (Koo Kyo-hwan), who's struggling to break into high-profile work.

The world-building feels vibrant in depicting the assassin profession as monopolized by wealthy companies, implementing rules that must be followed while leaving behind independent businesses trying to stay afloat. It's the set-up for a stylishly shot world which begs further exploration, from the meetings between bosses scared to rock the boat, to bar-set celebrations over their jobs making headlines. It's all part of the lengthy 139-minute runtime, where quite a bit unfolds which threatens to overwhelm the story. Not helping matters are some heavy-handed moments, such as the seemingly forced origin of the assassin's rules.

The film's true stars are the brilliant and brutal fights. From a bar-set brawl during telephone negotiations, to a sparring session which shows the mightiness of a pen, there's a sense of nothing being held back as the characters use any trick to reach the bloody conclusion to impressive effect. There are opportunities for humour, particularly when someone becomes a pin-cushion, although there's a sense of the characters aiming for victory at all costs. While the question arises if anyone actually wins considering the lengths taken, the understandings formed by the end offer hope that all is not lost.

Kill Boksoon is available on Netflix from March 31st