Director: Lee Choong-Hyun
Cast: Jeon Jong-seo, Park Yu-rim, Kim Ji-hoon, Kim Mu-yeol, Shin Se-Hwi, Park Hyoung-Soo, Kim Young-Ok, Joo Hyun, Jang Yoon-Ju, Park Geun-Jeong
Running Time: 93 min.
By Paul Bramhall
At the end of my review for director and writer Lee Chung-hyun’s 2020 feature length debut The Call, I noted how its success “owes a lot to Jong-seo’s edgy performance, but also marks Chung-hyun as a director to keep an eye on.” 3 years on and we have Ballerina, marking the return of not only Chung-hyun, but also leading lady Jeon Jong-seo, with the pair having been in a relationship since their collaboration. Directors and actresses working together who are involved romantically is certainly nothing new to the film industry, with the likes of Hong Sang-soo and Kim Min-hee, and Jia Zhangke and Zhao Tao, all highlighting that working with your partner can be a fruitful experience.
With Chung-hyun proving to have a distinctive creative voice with The Call, and Jong-seo becoming one of the most captivating actresses working today (check her out in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon), it’s an exciting prospect to see them reunite. What’s less exciting is the genre in which they’ve chosen to do so, which sees Jong-seo cast as an ex-bodyguard with a distinct set of skills. While it may sound different on paper, onscreen it all feels too familiar to the current spate of dime a dozen assassin flicks that hit the screen almost every other month. Looking at post-2020 female centric movies alone we’ve had Jessica Chastain in Ava, Maggie Q in Protégé, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Kate, Karen Gillan in Gunpowder Milkshake, Jeon Do-yeon in Kill Boksoon, and the pairing of Akari Takaishi and Saori Izawa in Baby Assassins and its sequel.
To say that the genre is overpopulated is an understatement, and to that end each successive entry in it needs to be able to do something special to really set itself apart, and offer audiences something they haven’t seen countless times before. Sadly Ballerina makes it clear from the get-go that making the character a bodyguard rather than an assassin isn’t going to make much difference to how things go down, as we meet Jong-seo casually stroll into the middle of a convenience store hold-up, and proceed to make the thieves regret their decision. While the scene features the most prominent use of a can of pineapple since Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, the franticness of the split-second editing and awkwardly positioned camera angles render it practically impossible to tell what’s going on.
The feeling of not being entirely sure what’s going on carries over into almost every aspect of Ballerina, as it comes across more like one of those drastically edited down movie versions of a longer TV series than a coherent piece of filmmaking. The plot doesn’t amount to much beyond Jong-seo taking revenge for her ballerina friend, played by popular K-drama actress Park Yu-rim (Drive My Car). After receiving a despondent phone call asking to hang out in one of the opening scenes, Jong-seo turns up at Yu-rim’s apartment to find she’s killed herself in the bathtub. Leaving a note pointing to who drove her to such drastic measures, it turns out Yu-rim was being blackmailed by a BDSM loving drug dealer. Played by Kim Ji-hoon (The Age of Blood, Natalie), his modus operandi is to target girls in nightclubs, then drug and rape them while filming the whole ordeal, which he then uses as leverage to extort them.
The biggest issue Chung-hyun’s direction and script has is that it stutters and stumbles for essentially the entirety of its punchy 90-minute runtime in convincing the audience of Jong-seo and Yu-rim’s friendship. In a similar compliant that I had with The Call, Chung-hyun’s weakness seems to be at crafting realistic scenes of happiness, with a series of flashbacks to Jong-seo and Yu-rim bonding through giggles over mint chocolate cake and splashing together in the sea feeling too inauthentic and out of character. During some moments there’s a hint of implying Jong-seo’s feelings towards Yu-rim could be more than just platonic, but again the saccharine nature of their scenes together leans more towards taking the audience out of the movie rather than feeling like an organic part of the narrative.
They also don’t mesh well with the character of Jong-seo we meet in the present. We know she used to work for “the firm” because it’s mentioned in a throwaway line when she meets an old acquaintance, and we know she was living a detached and loner life until she met Yu-rim. However prior to receiving Yu-rim’s call she also seems just as detached as she did before they knew each other, so what happened to the pair that made them grow distant? How did Jong-seo become a bodyguard in the first place? What happened to make her want to leave it behind? All of this is shrouded in mystery, however rather than being enigmatic it feels like the script is only half baked, with Jong-seo left to come across as laconic and lethal in equal doses, but very little else. While I’m not a fan of being spoon fed and enjoy movies that lead you to your own interpretations, here the lack of characterisation and backstory does more harm than good.
With a main character who offers little to care about or empathise with, it’s up to the bad guys to try and pick up the slack to maintain audience interest. It’s here where Chung-hyun shows his strengths as a filmmaker, with the relationship between the gimp mask loving Ji-hoon and the gangster he works for, played by Kim Mu-yeol (The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Space Sweepers), handled in an entertaining manner. There’s a tension between the pair that threatens to boil over when it’s revealed Ji-hoon’s sex video business was a side hustle he was keeping a secret from Mu-yeol, and the latter’s offer to include it as part of the gang’s revenue stream versus the former’s reluctance. The clash between a ruthless gang boss and his renegade BDSM obsessed underling could have been a whole movie by itself, but alas here it ultimately fizzles out in favor of it being Jong-seo’s show.
That’s fair enough, and Jong-seo and Ji-hoon do get a knock down drag out fight scene in a hotel bedroom that gets messy. The rapid cut editing and constantly changing camera angles are likely an unfortunate necessity to hide the doubling and quicken the pace, a combination which I’d argue will have even those who hate the current one-take sequences begging for some longer shots, but it at least ends on a suitably gory note. Indeed some of the most brutally effective scenes in Ballerina aren’t the ones with Jong-seo attempting to convince us she’s the next big action star, but rather the ones when the scene allows her acting to convey everything the audience needs to feel, especially when she has a flamethrower on her back.
While for action movies sometimes the simplest concepts translate to being most effective onscreen, Chung-hyun’s latest arguably takes the theory too far, offering up paper-thin characters and a plot so straightforward that even 95 minutes feels too long. At one point a character accidentally uses a chainsaw to chop off his own leg, which kind of feels like a metaphor for how Chung-hyun has approached his sophomore feature length production. There’re some occasional glimpses on display of what could have been, however there’s also a whole lot of stuff missing, which includes some pretty basic ingredients considered essential to what makes a movie.
Next year there’ll be yet another movie released called Ballerina that stars Ana de Armas (who will be playing an assassin!), and although it may seem too early to say, I’d be willing to bet it’ll be Chung-hyun’s version that fades into obscurity. Let’s hope the talents of Jong-seo stick around a lot longer, perhaps just not in the action genre.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4.5/10