Move over, John Wick – the killer of the moment is Gil Boksoon. She’s a mum and murderer, a lover and a liar, and the protagonist of Netflix’s blood-spattered new movie Kill Boksoon.
Korean drama fans will know lead actress Jeon Do-yeon most recently as Haeng-seon, the handball player-turned-side dish seller in the sweet series Crash Course in Romance, while cinephiles will recognise her as the Cannes award-winning star of Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 film Secret Sunshine.
But under the direction of Byun Sung-hyun, Jeon transforms into the cool-as-you-like Gil Boksoon, an A-list assassin whose commitment to her company MK Entertainment wavers as she considers how to repair her fraying relationship with her daughter. She negotiates life-or-death jobs, spats with her kid and company politics – all while grappling with the question of what she really wants.
Let Byun, Jeon and co-star Sul Kyung-gu tell you what to expect from Kill Boksoon before you dive into its cutthroat world come March 31.
Kill Boksoon hooks you from the very start with a nighttime showdown between Boksoon and a loincloth-clad Japanese yakuza (Hwang Jung-min) on Seoul’s Dongho Bridge. It’s one of several dizzying action scenes in the movie, all varied in setting (a clinical boardroom; a grimy restaurant) and weaponry choices (from swords and guns to the less conventional marker pen).
“These characters fight with their lives on the line” – Sul Kyung-gu
Jeon trained for four months to play Boksoon, the first action role in her 30-year-long career – and she was thrilled to try something new, though understandably a little intimidated. “I actually want to try a lot of different genres but chances don’t come that easy,” she recalls of her decision to agree to the movie without even reading its script. But she did have some reservations: “I was scared because I didn’t know if I could pull it off.”
Indeed, the fight scenes in Kill Boksoon are elaborate, especially because Boksoon runs through every possible scenario and outcome in her head before deciding on a course of action. In the climactic battle, Boksoon’s mind is whirring – her mental exercises playing out on screen as a veritable ballet of violence.
“These characters fight with their lives on the line, but on the set we had so much fun,” says Sul Kyung-gu, who as MK Entertainment director Cha Min-kyu oversees his own one-man-show in a smoky Russian bar. The fight scenes as they appear in the final cut are “lethal but crisp”, he says – to be thoroughly savoured as they may very well be the last for both leading lady Jeon and director Byun.
“After I wrapped Kill Boksoon, I thought, ‘I’m never doing action again,’” Jeon reveals. While directing action scenes, Byun says, “I was grateful but I felt very sorry at the same time… Because I could see it was so physically challenging for the actors, I even said that I will never shoot an action movie ever again.”
Kill Boksoon premieres a week after the fourth installment of the John Wick series, a franchise that Byun has acknowledged as an inspiration. He’s also a fan of Scorsese and Tarantino, and expresses his admiration for Korean cinema of the early 2000s: “For action scenes, I try to follow the style of director Lee Myung-se, but his style is just so immaculate I can’t be half as good.”
While giving his influences their flowers, in Kill Boksoon Byun still puts his own spin on the assassin genre by turning this council of killer organisations into something akin to an entertainment conglomerate. He also repurposes the verbiage of the screen industry: Jobs and assignments are “shows”; while assassins are at the scene they are on “set”; and murderers-in-training prepare to make their “debuts”. Boksoon is caught in a bind over her “contract renewal” – a phrase that should give viewers invested in South Korea’s real-life entertainment industry a good chuckle.
“After I wrapped Kill Boksoon, I thought, ‘I’m never doing action again’” – Jeon Do-yeon
As Gil Boksoon, Jeon Do-yeon is the bruised, beating heart of the movie. Boksoon has been written as a bundle of contradictions, starting with her name, which Byun cribbed from one of Jeon’s real-life aunts: “Boksoon, the character, she’s supposed to be sophisticated and chic, but the name Boksoon is quite old-fashioned and adorable,” the actress explains.
A cold-hearted killer who takes meticulous care of her houseplants and a mother who’ll scold her daughter for smoking while lighting a cigarette up herself, Boksoon is inconsistent – and, when brought to life by Jeon, movingly human. She’s a “realistic mum”, as Jeon puts it, deeply inspired by her own experiences as a mother. And if you set aside its gory, larger-than-life premise, Kill Boksoon ultimately charts the unravelling of a woman who thinks she has it all figured out.
Jeon Do-yeon shines in Kill Boksoon, but her castmates are given plenty to play with, too. There are layers and levels to every character, even the young’uns: Boksoon’s sullen teenage daughter Jae-young (the excellent Kim Si-a, only 14) is facing a manipulative bully at school, while MK Entertainment intern Yeong-ji (Lee Yeon) grapples with both her training and her worship of her idol Boksoon.
Particularly compelling is the triangle of Boksoon, her mentor Min-kyu (Sul Kyung-gu) and his jealous sister Min-hee (Taxi Driver’s Esom). Min-kyu, the chairman of Boksoon’s company MK, met her when she was 17, becoming her mentor and even “saviour”, Sul explains. “He’s strong, but when it comes to Boksoon he gets really narrow-minded and always goes soft on her. So he has this blind love for her.” On the flipside is Min-hee, MK’s venomous and unpredictable director whose dynamic with her brother has a distinct whiff of Game of Thrones about it.
Boksoon also has a complicated relationship with Han Hee-sung (Koo Kyo-hwan), a young, talented but disaffected professional at MK. This character has a lot of director Byun in him: “I’m idealistic and revolutionary but in action I compromise with what’s given to me and I go after the money,” Byun explains. “I was quite dissatisfied with my reality when I was in my twenties, and those points are what I had in mind when creating this character.”
Hee-sung is a colleague and friend of Boksoon’s, and sometimes even a confidante. But he also resents her and her generation at MK for suppressing his and his peers’ progression, a dynamic that channels Byun’s observations of society today: “The issue of monopolising in the world of assassins, the failed generational shift from veteran killers to younger killers, where the up-and-coming ones cannot uphold their positions and ultimately fail… This was a metaphor that I wanted to use to tell the story of what is going on in our society these days, with our younger generation.”
The richness of Kill Boksoon’s characters makes the movie much more than an action flick. “To Boksoon, this movie may be a story of personal growth; to Min-kyu, a melodrama; to [Jae-young], an educational movie – not the one where the mum educates her child but the other way around,” says Byun.
Delving into doomed romance, family drama, coming-of-age epiphany and even a bit of uproarious slapstick, Kill Boksoon weaves so many threads into its 138 minutes. Byun sees it as “a very unrealistic story but with universal values”. When the act of murder is normalised as a job well done, how does one do the right thing? “The question I wanted to pose was, ‘Everything is a paradox: When the line between good and bad becomes blurred, what is the most ethical standard?’” Byun adds.
“The conclusion that I came to was that I should be true to myself. This was also the first message I wanted to convey through this movie.”
Kill Boksoon streams on Netflix from March 31