Kill Boksoon: a tremendously exciting Korean assassin thriller

Drawing from the John Wick well of murder-for-hire, Byun Sunghyun’s action thriller is as focused on fleshing out its characters as it is on delivering exhilarating set pieces.

Kill Boksoon (2023)Courtesy of Netflix
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

Perhaps inevitably, any contemporary fast and furious assassin flick invites comparison with the John Wick saga. The inventive kills and dizzying speed of Keanu Reeves’s taciturn, black-clad avenger breathed new life into the subgenre, and is evidently something of an inspiration for Kill Boksoon, the fifth film from Korean writer-director Byun Sunghyun. Other reference points are detectable, but it’s to Byun’s credit that his influences never overshadow a tremendously exciting if slightly overstuffed action thriller.

The title is a play on the name of Gil Boksoon (Jeon Doyeon), the top killer at Korea’s biggest assassin agency, MK. Boksoon balances raising her rebellious teen daughter Jaeyoung (Kim Si-A) with fulfilling her murderous contracts (euphemistically referred to as “shows” by MK operatives and lesser, rival Korean firms). Parenting travails are tackled in some depth, ensuring we’re invested in the mother-daughter relationship throughout. At one point Boksoon confronts Jaeyoung about smoking; in a flashback it’s revealed her own father once forced her to eat a cigarette after finding out that she indulged in the habit. The idea of history repeating itself through genes is a repeated motif – channelling her mother’s violent abilities, Jaeyoung gets in trouble at school for stabbing a boy threatening to blackmail her with photos of her cheating on her boyfriend with a female friend. There’s no need for a “That’s my girl!” to establish mother and daughter’s bloody affinities.

As with the Wick films, the primacy of ritual and the overarching governance of the murder business are emphasised, with Boksoon’s refusal to carry out a show on the young son of a politician a key plot driver. Repeated summits led by MK boss chairman Cha (Sul Kyunggu) give such close attention to the rules, regulations and other contractual nuances of employment, the film can be read as a gallows-humour satire of the legitimate business world.

There’s wit and visual flair in spades – of the superb set pieces, Boksoon’s opening confrontation with a yakuza boss on Seoul’s Dongho Bridge and Cha’s annihilation of gangsters in a Vladivostok saloon are the highlights, with the latter striking a similar exhilarating note to Colin Firth’s church massacre in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). You’d be forgiven for thinking that the last thing we need is another action franchise, but with Kill Boksoon, Byun makes a strong case for creating a fresh one.

Kill Boksoon is on Netflix from 31 March.