Netflix’s newest Korean film offering Kill Boksoon premiered earlier this year to much anticipation at the Berlin International Film Festival. The movie boasts a stellar cast led by Jeon Do-yeon, who plays a famed assassin named Gil Bok-soon. At work, Gil is a legendary killer but, at home, she’s a single mother grappling with raising her teenage daughter. The film contains all the thrills of Hollywood action movies like John Wick, but stands out by weaving in commentary around gender roles, societal competition, and even the K-pop industrial complex.
Life as a single mother—and a killer
Jeon Do-yeon’s most recent role before Kill Boksoon was the drama Crash Course in Romance, in which she also played a single mother—though in a romantic rather than violent context. Her role as Gil Bok-soon in Kill Boksoon not only shows her versatility as an actress, but also offers another insight into the life of a single mother.
It’s a topic that deserves exploration, as single mothers in Korea often face social stigma and ostracism over raising children outside of marriage. While official statistics list at least 24,000 single mothers in Korea, true numbers are likely much higher given these mothers are reluctant to report their status; other estimates show 1.5 million single-parent households in South Korea as of 2020. Furthermore, many Korean single mothers struggle financially, with Korean women usually earning 63% of what men do.
While Bok-soon isn’t impoverished, as seen by her luxurious house, she must still contend with socioeconomic pressures around single motherhood, and the unequal status of women in the Korean workplace. For example, Bok-soon must keep working as an assassin to provide for her daughter Jae-young (Kim Si-a), even if she dreams of retiring soon. Her company’s boss Cha Min-kyu (Sol Kyung-gu) also reiterates that Bok-soon must not let Jae-young get in the way of her work, and Bok-soon had to get approval from him to even raise Jae-young to begin with, despite the fact that she’s a top-ranked killer in her company.
If there’s anything that Jeon Do-yeon’s Crash Course in Romance character Nam Haeng-seon and Kill Boksoon’s Gil Bok-soon share, it’s the constant struggle of raising a child as a single mother. For Bok-soon, motherhood is even more difficult than killing. In a press conference, Jeon compared the situation to balancing motherhood and acting in her personal life. “Having a profession is easier than raising a child,” she said.
Life as a teenager—with a dark secret
If Bok-soon depicts the duality of being a mother and professional, Jae-young shows the pains of being a teenager in South Korea. These are pains that cause mother and daughter to both bicker and bond, as evidenced by an early scene where Bok-soon and Jae-young talk about how society is unfair.
Part of why Bok-soon must keep working is to ensure that Jae-young can keep up in South Korea’s hyper-competitive “Hell Joseon” society, one that values education and prestige. For instance, Jae-young attends an expensive private school, partially out of social obligation and partially out of a desire to make Bok-soon happy. This theme of “education fever” also appears in Crash Course in Romance, drawing further parallels between the two works.
Jae-young also feels like an outcast as she grapples with her sexuality. According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), young LGBTQ South Koreans experience frequent isolation and mistreatment in schools, especially when their identities become public. For instance, another student who likes Jae-young discovers her secret, and threatens to spread photos online unless they date. Beyond that though, lack of support from family also pushes such LGBTQ Koreans to suffer in silence. As Jae-young reflects when musing about how she can’t confide in Bok-soon about her sexual identity, “mothers love you until they know who you really are.”
Life as a contract killer in an unfair society
Besides character dynamics, the worldbuilding in Kill Boksoon further accentuates the air of competition and inequality.
For one, the contract killing agency that Bok-soon works for is called MK Ent; its name and operating practices offer a thinly veiled reference to South Korea’s high-pressure K-pop industry and educational environment.
At MK, killers receive letter rankings; Bok-soon has the highest grade of A, while other colleagues have lower grades like C. Ostensibly, MK’s killers are ranked by skills and success rate but, in reality, their rankings also depend on connections and age. The rules that killers both within MK and outside have to follow are often arbitrary and restrictive. For example, MK’s boss Cha Min-kyu prohibits killers from accepting contracts from outside their own companies, even if they need the work to maintain financial solvency. It’s reminiscent of how K-pop entertainment companies control the diets and dating lives of their idols, or how corporations use non-compete agreements to impede workers’ careers. Just like in the K-pop industry, aspiring contract killers also must train for many years starting from a young age, before making their “debuts”. Once their debuts occur, they work under strict contracts that last for years, up until they reach their primes.
As with idols, the killers in Kill Boksoon also experience ageism tinged with sexism. In one scene, Bok-soon laments to another colleague how she might be “past her prime”, while that colleague teases Bok-soon that recruits are doing better than her during her youth. However, such comments are never given to men in the film, especially MK’s boss Cha Min-kyu. This has parallels in Jeon Do-yeon’s acting career as well; she received online criticism for looking “too old” compared to her co-star in Crash Course in Romance, even though male actors her age would never get the same criticism and instead receive praises saying they’ve “aged like fine wine.” It seems laughable to say that the 50 year-old Jeon is “too old” when she still does all her own action stunts.
Ultimately, Kill Boksoon is a visual spectacle. The film combines comedy and action, while also making a point to highlight societal topics in contemporary South Korea. Its action sequences are impressive, reminiscent of John Wick—or should we say, Jeon Wick—mixing magnetic fist fights with slow-motion blood splats. Kill Booksoon is not only entertaining, but also contains a heavy emotional undercurrent with Jeon departing from her arthouse flicks to play a challenging dual role—that of a mother and a killer.
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Kill Boksoon (Korean: 길복순)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Byun Sung-hyun. Wide release on Netflix March 31, 2023. Running time 2hr 17 mins. Starring Jeon Do-yeon, Sol Kyung-gu, Esom, Koo Gyo-hwan, Kim Si-a.