Berlin 2023

Kill Boksoon review – Korean actioner designed by the Netflix algorithm

Inventive fight sequences are undermined by dreary and uninspired dialogue scenes in Byun Sung-hyun's bloated John Wick wannabe

Kill Boksoon is a double-whammy of groan-inducing modern film trends, both pioneered by streaming services: the painful Netflix bloat (a 90-minute story takes over two hours and fifteen minutes to play out) and the dreaded film-by-algorithm. You can pretty much hear whatever primordial version of ChatGPT thrums along at the Netflix offices churning out the elevator pitch: “Guaranteed hit = assassin’s underworld of John Wick + Korean anti-capitalist social commentary from Parasite and Squid Game + bad-ass female lead from Kill Bill. Expected audience numbers: 40 million viewers.”

And in fairness, this female lead, Gil Boksoon (get the pun yet?), played by Jeon Do-yeon, is convincing. She’s the greatest assassin in the Korean underworld, which plays by very strict rules overseen by Cha Min-kyu (Sol Kyung-gu), a society which is struggling to keep everyone in check: Boksoon’s been hoovering up the top jobs for so long that only low-paying work is available for the rest of the killers, leading to resentment, inequality and jealousy, all of which conspire to make her a target. She’s also a doting, stressed-out single mother, aware that her daughter, Jae-young (Kim Si-a), is already exhibiting violent tendencies at school. Like mother, like daughter.

The problem is, all the world-building and character details are obsessively spoon-fed to the audience, presumably to make sure we don’t miss anything important in case we’re too busy live tweeting what a hashtag girlboss Boksoon is. So, when we first hear one of the supporting cast pointedly complain about the unequal spread of assassin jobs, the camera makes sure we notice the big Che Guevara T-shirt he’s wearing. When Boksoon finishes a conversation remarking how there are more important things than work, the next cut is immediately to her daughter at home.

Such thudding obviousness drains any energy out of the film, which is annoying since Kill Boksoon has impressive action in spades. Director Byun Sung-hyun finds a way to give each sequence its own personality and vibrancy. One-on-ones, mass brawls, fisticuffs, sword fights, long-takes, mixed with rapid edits, all get a play in the mix. The best of the lot involves two sets of characters fighting either side of a garage door, the camera swirling around in a circle, using the cross-section of the wall as a transition point in the action. It looks like a one-take, but I’m fairly certain they’re hiding an edit in that cross-section, and it is an absolutely ingenious use of camera and action.

This stuff is handled with such flair that it's exasperating that Kill Boksoon withholds these fight sequences for so long in favour of dreary and overlong dialogue scenes. Byun seems to have no visual ideas for the talky parts, either: they are visually flat, relying on the basics of shot/reverse shot. A shame, since there's a superb 90-minute actioner in here somewhere, where the dialogue simply serves as pre-amble for the next brawl. At least on Netflix you can skip straight to the good parts.

Kill Boksoon was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2022. It will be released on Netflix on 31 March.

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