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Director Byun Sung-hyun was baffled when he first learned that his feature film Kill Boksoon would be invited to the Berlin International Film Festival last month.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” he said at a press conference for Kill Boksoon held in Seoul earlier this month. “I thought Kill Bok-soon was not the type of film that would be selected by a festival like Berlin. It’s a genre film. But the screening took place in a theater of 1,800 seats and I was very moved to see the audiences empathizing with the story.”
The action thriller and Netflix original, which launches on March 31 on the streaming service, traces the story of a female assassin named Boksoon (played by the accomplished Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon) who is also a single mom to a teenage daughter. The contrasts of the heroine’s life as a killer and a mother is an interesting juxtaposition in the film, especially as the story progresses and the daughter confesses that she is in love with a girl at her school, revealing how both mother and daughter have been hiding key aspects of their lives. With a title and setting that makes reference to Kill Bill’s female assassin and John Wick’s contract killers, the film is full of stylish and choreographed action scenes and dystopian spaces.
Byun, a longtime fan of Jeon, winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s best actress award in 2007 for Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, says that the film was inspired by his observations of the actress’ interactions with her real-life daughter.
“We met and had many conversations to get ideas for a film, and I learned that there was a great gap between her roles as a mother and an actress. Then I thought that it would be interesting to show this juxtaposition through a character who has a job of both raising a person and killing a person.”
Byun, already known for the fine editing of his previous films The Merciless (2017) and Kingmaker (2022), wanted vigorous stunts and sword fight scenes for Kill Boksoon — a style of filmmaking that was totally new to Jeon.
“I was both thankful and uncomfortable when I was filming the action scenes,” he said. “In some scenes, I was about to give up after seeing the actors struggle so much. I finally said I would find my way around it through editing, but the actors insisted that they would do it one more time. I was very grateful, but it was also quite painful watching them suffer. I told my director of photography that I would never shoot an action movie again.”
The film is full of paradoxes. Aside from the heroine’s opposing roles as both killer and mother, Boksoon, her name, is an old-fashioned name typically used in the countryside for dogs or women.
“I couldn’t come up with the heroine’s name for a while. I tend to use the names of the people I know when I write a script. Then one day [when we met], a name for Jeon’s aunt popped up on her phone as ‘aunt Boksoon.’ Right away, I wanted to use that name. Jeon insisted she didn’t want to use the name, but I ended up using it anyway.”
Despite the stylized action scenes, the film also makes bold statements about capitalism and ethics in contemporary society. MK ENT, an agency that hires hundreds of contract killers in the film, tells its employees that they are different from other independent agencies who hire freelancers and kill anyone (even children) for money. The film begins with Booksoon on an assignment to kill a Japanese yakuza boss. But instead of killing him with a gun, she brings up a conversation she had with her daughter about fair competition and offers to fight him first-to-fist instead.
“Because it’s a genre film, I consciously put in a lot of conceptual dialogue that might resonate with the era we live in,” he says. “The film delves into many contradicting ideas and it wouldn’t make any sense to emphasize the ethics because it’s ultimately a story about killing people. I guess I wanted to say that everything in the world is contradictory, and has both evil and good sides. If someone were to ask me ‘what is ethical,’ my conclusion is that as long as you don’t lose a sense of dignity you’re fine.”
The film is also an homage to the two veteran actors – Jeon and longtime Korean leading man, Sol Kyung-gu, who plays the head of MK ENT and is secretly in love with Boksoon. The two actors appeared opposite one another near the start of their careers in Park Heung-sik’s 2001 romantic comedy, I Wish I Had a Wife.
“There is a line in the film that being stabbed with old knives hurts more. It was my tribute to the two actors,” Byun says.
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