“Killing people is simple compared to raising a kid,” Gil Bok-soon (Jeon Do-yeon) spits in exasperation. That’s the one sentence thematic synopsis of Byun Sung-hyun’s Korean female assassin/mid-life crisis Netflix comedy/action hybrid. You can probably think of parallels, from Mr. and Mrs. Smith to John Wick. But Kill Boksoon is weirder, funnier, and more moving than its near-cousins. This is a silly, and slyly beautiful, masterpiece.
As you’d expect if you’ve ever seen an assassin movie, Bok-soon is the greatest assassin in the world, but she’s tired of the game. Her contract with the leading, quasi-monopolistic killing firm, MK. ENT is just about up, and she’s thinking about backing away to spend more time with her daughter, Gil Jae-yeong (Kim Si-a). On her last mission, though, she’s asked to kill a child at the behest of his father, and she balks. The fall-out puts her life in jeopardy. That leaves her in a bad place to respond gracefully when her daughter starts to have major problems in school and then comes out to her as a lesbian.
Byun directs the action scenes with a kinetic flair and invention that makes you never want to be bored by American superhero CGI default tedium again. The camera shoots action through moving train windows, or upside down in puddles. Alternate future versions of fights shoot off at angles or fill a room as Bok-soon thinks through her best options. In one wonderful sequence, our hero fights a young up-and-comer, defeating her with only a tube of lipstick. In another, two fights take place on opposite sides of a partition and the camera swings back and forth between them, so it feels like you’re tossed through the wall by the force of the battle(s).
Bok-soon loves the fights as much as the director does; she relishes her skill and vicious efficiency. The rest of her life, though, is more difficult to navigate. She used to be very close to her daughter but can feel the girl pulling away—and she blames herself since she has to keep so much of her own life hidden. Bok-soon’s father abused her; she tries to shelter her daughter from violence, and then is horrified and guilt-ridden when she’s not able to do so. Bok-soon can be an egotistical asshole certain of her victory one moment, then undone by a cutting word (or an imagined cutting word) from Jae-yeong the next.
Jae-yeong hangs on her mom’s opinions too, even as she’s as tough—or tougher—than Bok-soon when required. The core of the film is their parallel efforts to be true to themselves, a task, Kill Boksoon suggests, which doesn’t get any easier at 50 than it is at 15.
Inescapably, this will be compared to Everything Everywhere All At Once, another movie about Asian mothers and their queer daughters. EEAAO’s multi-dimensional SF plot seems more outrageous and idiosyncratic on the surface. But Kill Boksoon is the movie that really seems to be ready to follow its own path even if it alienates. The movie has a core ruthlessness; it’s willing to sacrifice beloved characters, and beloved relationships. It’s also prepared to keep information from you. What’s the precise connection between Cha Min-kyu (Sol Kyung-gu), the head of MK. ENT, and Bok-soon. Were they lovers? Is he the father of Jae-yeong?
You never learn the answers, just as Jae-yeong never learns who her mom is, and her mom, maybe, never learns about Jae-yeong’s final, brilliant triumph at school. You don’t get to know everything about anyone, even the people you’re closest to. Part of love is letting your loved ones keep some strategic barriers up. Which makes it all the more moving when, for a moment, they come down, and the assassin stares at her daughter, who she knows and doesn’t know, and says with the force of revelation, “You are so admirable, my baby.” Kill Boksoon is a film that keeps its secrets even as it opens a vein.