Director: Kwak Jeong-deok
Cast: Shin Hyun-joon, Kim Min-kyung, Lee Ro-woon, Lee Moon-sik, Hong Eunki, Kim Byung-chun
Duration: 100 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
I recall that in 2003 the British DVD label Hong Kong Legends created a sister label called Premier Asia, the intent of which was to showcase productions from other parts of Asia beyond Hong Kong’s shores. One of the first titles (maybe even the first?) was the 2000 Korean wuxia film Bichunmoo which, a rarity even at the time of this writing in 2023, has retained its original title for the Western release (although admittedly it has been slapped with an extension of Warrior of Virtue). Having only been in Korean cinema for a couple of years, for me the film was the first introduction to lead actor Shin Hyun-joon, who plays a long-haired, flirtatious swordsman whose deadly martial arts style alludes to the title.
Hyun-joon was already an established actor in 2000, having spent the 90s playing memorable villain roles in the likes of reviving the film industry The general’s son CGI trilogy and blockbuster The Ginkgo bed. Thanks to Premier Asia, however, it is likely that for most Western audiences the image of him is the swordsman of Bichunmoo is what comes to mind when Hyun-joon’s name is mentioned. I mention this background, as in 2023 Hyun-joon returned to the screen as a long-haired swordsman in The Night of the Killerthat even just glancing at the poster, it might be easily mistaken for Bichunmoo 2. It’s not, yet it’s still a welcome if unexpected surprise to see Hyun-joon return to the fencing genre 23 years later.
The film landscape in Korea also changed significantly during that time. In 2000 Bichunmoo director Kim Yeong-joon brought in Hong Kong choreographer Ma Yuk Sing to direct the action scenes, giving them a thread-fueled new wave wuxia aesthetic that was likely a carryover from the popularity of Hong Kong cinema in Korea during the 90s. However in 2023 the over the top nature of the 90s has been replaced by a more grounded approach, the type of which can be seen in more recent productions such as The swordsman AND Avenger. The change in approach is likely a boon for Hyun-joon, who now in his 50s and 20s out of practice probably wouldn’t have been in the best position to be wired and hurled all over the screen.
In the director’s chair for The Night of the Killer is Kwak Jeong-deok, primarily known for his work as a screenwriter and adaptation of the likes of A hard day AND Ashfall, and is also in charge of the script here. Jeong-deok’s only previous directorial work was 16 years earlier, when he directed an episode titled Good wife for the erotic-themed TV film series Temptation of Eveway back in 2007. How he got here to be a director will remain one of those mysteries that occasionally crop up when reviewing Korean cinema, but for the sake of order, let’s say that going from a TV full of eroticism the film about a film by Joseon-era assassins with a 16-year gap is a natural progression.
Told through narration, the story has Hyun-joon cast as “the best assassin in Joseon,” portrayed as a dark, brooding fellow who speaks only in a low voice and whose sentences often end in a whisper, with an initial assassination scene showing his ruthless efficiency and refusal to be swayed to deliver a hit. His life of short silent sentences and deadly sword strokes is cut short when he falls to his knees clutching his chest after finishing a job, the result of a heart problem he has tried to live in ignorance of for a while. ‘. A visit to her trusted doctor reveals that only a herb rumored to be called mahwangcho could cure her condition, but considering no one even knows whether it’s actually real or not, the best course of action she can take is to stop practicing martial arts and sex. (in this order).
From there, proceedings jump ahead a year and the tone becomes markedly different from the expectations the opening sets. It’s a bit of a bait and switch, albeit a low key one, but the good news is that it works. Jobless and sleeping where he can put his hat down, the image of the dreaded killer is long gone, and in his place is a rather pitiful figure whom the local boys regard as homeless. It is after somewhat messy rescuing a lady being harassed by a group of bandits that he ends up at the inn he runs, receiving a bowl of soup as a gift for his troubles, an exchange that culminates in him becoming the inn’s waiter in return of a roof over his head.
Played by Kim Min-kyung (Deep trap, Miss and Mrs Cops), along with his son (played by Lee Ro-woon – Suspicious court, My first client) the couple’s humble lifestyle gradually begins to infect Hyun-joon, whose process takes on a decidedly comical tone. From his ability to deftly balance a bowl of stew in each hand without spilling any, to his awkward attempts at a smile, the opening third of The Night of the Killer is spent with Hyun-joon like a fish out of water amusingly trying to adjust to the simpler lifestyle. Like any assassin in such a narrative, however, that tranquility is not to last, and events gradually begin to take on a much darker tone. For starters, the bandits responsible for Min-kyung’s husband’s death escape from prison, and there’s a mysterious, bright-eyed presence in the darkness conspiring to cause turmoil, which combine to inevitably bring Joseon’s top assassin back into world of killing.
To address the elephant in the room, although Hyun-joon was once an A-list star, there is no doubt that The Night of the Killer it’s a decidedly low-budget affair. Due more to the likes of recent productions such as Slate compared to its early to mid-2000s output, approaching its admirably punchy 100-minute runtime with expectations of more will inevitably result in disappointment. Daytime filming tends to rely on the positioning of the sun for lighting rather than any dedicated lighting department, and many outdoor dialogue scenes suffer from a “tinny” sound quality, alluding to a lack of sound recording equipment high quality. While it’s understandably a disappointment to see Hyun-joon in a fencing film so clearly looking pennies at him, thankfully as an actor he hasn’t lost the screen presence that propelled his rise to fame in the 1990s and 2000s, giving The Night of the Killer a sense of levity that is not necessarily earned.
What can’t be avoided though is the fact that the biggest letdown is the action scenes. If I were to be polite, the best way to describe them would be functional. They serve their purpose, yet the narrative lacks any kind of meaningful showdown or stunning choreography, instead relying excessively on the repetitive clanging of the sword to convey its aesthetic, which never seems to break out of neutrality. The introduction of a corrupt politician played by Lee Moon-sik (The karaoke freaks, The public enemy returns) serves as the villain of the piece, one who keeps a younger swordsman played by Hong Eunki by his side (Mr. Chief, Sing a song), looks like it just came off a K-pop video set. However, even when Hyun-joon and Eunki cross paths, it ultimately fails to culminate in any kind of excitement.
The same feeling can be applied to the title night of the assassin, one which sees Hyun-joon take on a small army of attackers, but again it is executed in such a way that it has no sense of urgency, relying instead on little CGI blood. convincing and flash and you’ll lack those word strokes to convey any kind of impact. Perhaps there is a better film somewhere in Jeong-deok’s sophomore effort in the director’s chair, but it’s all too obviously hampered by a lack of budget to get the script to the screen and an equal lack of real excitement in the action. presumably played by “The best assassin in Joseon”. Hyun-joon’s return to the long-haired brooding swordsman could be welcome, however different Bichunmoo from 23 years earlier, you’ll be lucky to remember a lot of it The Night of the Killer 23 hours after seeing it.
Paul Bramhall Rating: 6/10