Netflix's "Kill Boksoon" slays with a sharp, stylish take on an assassin balancing work & parenting

John Wick who? Add this hired killer with a 100% success rate and badass bravado to your hit list

Published March 31, 2023 5:13PM (EDT)

Jeon Do-yeon as Gil Boksoon in "Kill Boksoon" (No Ju-han/Netflix)
Jeon Do-yeon as Gil Boksoon in "Kill Boksoon" (No Ju-han/Netflix)

The pressures of balancing work and motherhood are typically enough to fill several films, and that's without the mom also being a world-class assassin. "Kingmaker" writer and director Byun Sung-hyun's first entry into the action genre, "Kill Boksoon," is a crime thriller centered on a mother raising her teenage daughter while continuing her work as a skilled hitwoman. In this magnetic film, Bok-soon's dilemmas as a mother and the moments where they inevitably intersect with her work make for the most thrilling portrayal of work-life balance put to the screen, as Byun expertly innovates and at times subverts the typical hitman arc.

A job goes wrong, giving those plotting against Bok-soon a chance to strike, and she protects herself in stunningly choreographed fight scenes.

In the movie, Gil Bok-soon (played by South Korean superstar Jeon Do-yeon, most recently seen in rom-com series "Crash Course in Romance") is a legend among the hitman industry, where assassins are contracted to hierarchical killing agencies and assigned jobs based on their letter grades. We first meet Gil – dubbed "Kill Bok-soon" based on her 100 percent success rate – during a hit job, where she's skilled enough to impress her yakuza-linked adversary and even envision the outcomes of her possible moves, which we see through a trippy, gorgeous reflective shot. Bok-soon also takes time out of the homicidal gig to wax poetic about her 15-year-old Jae-young (Kim Si-a), who has inspired Bok-soon to exercise a bit more fairness within her brutal trade, including giving her yakuza target a fair fight before ensuring that she'll get home to her daughter.

The rest of the movie follows the beats that are essential to crime thrillers: We meet Bok-soon's formidable boss, MK Entertainment CEO Cha Min-kyu ("Memoir of a Murderer's" Sul Kyung-gu), as well as her allies and frenemies, notably her C-ranked co-worker Han Hee-sung ("D.P.'s" Koo Kyo-hwan) and MK's Director Cha Min-hee ("Taxi Driver's" Esom). A job goes wrong, giving those plotting against Bok-soon a chance to strike, and she protects herself in stunningly choreographed fight scenes, as she battles five opponents at once and evades hand-to-hand blows without breaking a sweat. The camerawork leads viewers through every step, frenetically moving around the thrust fists and thrown weapons in real time.

Kill BoksoonLee Yeon as Kim Young-ji and Jeon Do-yeon as Gil Boksoon in "Kill Boksoon" (No Ju-han/Netflix)The crime arc only makes up part of the film, balanced with peeks at the inner machinations of Bok-soon's agency. Meanwhile, she's dealing with some heightened motherhood drama, including Jae-young taking up smoking and getting suspended with the threat of expulsion from school.

Great character work also propels the story, as it feels like every face on the screen has a well thought-out interiority and backstory. Jeon balances the quiet confidence and bravado of Bok-soon at work with private moments of uncertainty and exasperation, only allowed when she's alone or Jae-young's head is turned. Byun had told The Hollywood Reporter that the starting point of "Kill Boksoon" was Jeon's real-life challenge balancing her public work as an actress and her private life as a mother. Jeon's intimate connection to the work shines through, as she infuses Bok-soon with an underlying layer of vulnerability, where film assassins are typically limited to cockiness and rage.

While Jeon plays the overzealous, chipper mom devoted to her loved ones in "Crash Course," here she completely transforms into a powerful, measured career woman unwilling to make sacrifices for her home life. She also gets a talented scene partner in Kim, as the young actress plays a sardonic teen who's forming her own firm beliefs about the world while also hiding a life-altering secret.

Kill BoksoonJeon Do-yeon as Gil Boksoon in "Kill Boksoon" (No Ju-han/Netflix)"Kill Boksoon" brings in deft social commentary in realizing the elaborate world of MK Ent. and the companies that offer killing services. The agencies include several references to the South Korean entertainment industry, with the most tongue-in-cheek inclusion the designation of hit jobs as "shows" and the introduction of Kim Young-ji (Lee Yeom), an ace trainee set to make her "debut." The film takes time to showcase the range of experience within this stratified world, giving Bok-soon colleagues ranging from C-ranked Hee-sung to the strivers making a living at smaller agencies and languishing through "unemployment."

Everything from the gorgeous sets to the captivating cinematography to the career highlight performance by Jeon (not to mention a killer cameo) demands the audience's attention.

The MK building, a luxurious marvel of classic architecture in the middle of modern Seoul, hints at the institution's storied background compared to the oft-empty (but meticulously staged) bar owned by a former hitman who can only dream of making a comeback. An early sparring session between Bok-soon and Young-ji introduces the age-old conflict of practiced veterans versus new blood, as the film works in a meta-nod to the sensationalism of performed violence (aka the reason action films are so popular in the first place). The intricate world-building is another level of care that sucks viewers into the film, while also fleshing out Bok-soon as a woman with extremely high stakes in all aspects of her life.

Kill BoksoonSul Kyung-gu as Cha Min-kyu and Esom as Cha Min-hee in "Kill Boksoon" (No Ju-han/Netflix)Then there's Chairman Cha Min-kyu, who runs the world of assassins with an iron fist that only seems to unclench for Bok-soon herself. Their relationship is maybe the most compelling of the film, with Min-kyu serving as the lifelong mentor who found Bok-soon as a 17-year-old protege. Jeon and Sul, who previously acted as husband and wife in the 2001's "I Wish I Had a Wife" and 2019's "Birthday," keep the full span of their history mysterious, drawing viewers in with the question of just how much leeway the boss will give his favorite hire. Min-kyu's sister Min-hee adds into the equation as she resents his obvious favoritism, though she falls a bit flat beyond offering an obvious adversary in this story filled with shades of gray.

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When it comes to being an assassin and a mother, you'd think that the latter would be the easier task. "Kill Boksoon" will make you rethink that assumption, as the instant hit introduces the nuanced, engaging story of a woman who has a lot to learn from her daughter. It's a film that both delivers immediate thrills and will prompt multiple re-watches, allowing viewers to really soak in the intricate narrative and world-building that Byun accomplishes in its tightly paced two-hour-plus runtime. Everything from the gorgeous sets to the captivating cinematography to the career highlight performance by Jeon (not to mention a killer cameo) demands the audience's attention, making this one of the most fun watches of Netflix's year so far.

"Kill Boksoon" is streaming on Netflix.

By Quinci LeGardye

Quinci LeGardye is an LA-based culture writer covering television, film, pop culture, and Korean entertainment. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @quinciwho

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