The Killer

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Killer
"It is in large part Jang Hyuk's acting which makes this film work." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

At first glance, Choi Jae-hoon’s latest thriller, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, may look like something you’ve seen several times before. A retired hitman asked to protect a teenage girl who then gets kidnapped, forcing him out of retirement? It’s not the most original premise – yet in Choi’s hands it manages to be both innovative and respectful, and very thrilling indeed.

The hitman of the title is Bang Ui-gang, played by Jang Hyuk, an actor whose CV is considerably more diverse than that of most who might handle the physical demands of this role. That’s important, because it is in large part his acting which makes this film work. Although it’s never stated directly, it becomes clear over time that Ui-gang could live the life he did because he doesn’t have empathy. He does, however, have a sense of morality, and he’s capable of feeling affection, especially towards his wife – indeed, the way he safeguards her emotional well-being suggests that he treasures their bond all the more because that experience has been difficult for him to find. He’s haunted by the memory of a lonely girl who once hired him as a form of suicide. He couldn’t understand why she was so unhappy, and it seems that he has been searching for the answer ever since, fascinated by the strangeness of other people.

There are echoes here of Steven Yeun’s performance in Burning – Ui-gang is not the same kind of villainous character, but he is also somebody whose emotional landscape is significantly different from the norm, and like Yeun, Jang understands that this shouldn’t be confused with blankness. Ui-gang is always an engaging character even if he sometimes seems alien, and the journey of discovery which he makes over the course of the film adds a whole extra dimension to it, keeping it intellectual interesting as we are entertained by the action.

This experience of learning parallels that of the film’s other main character, Yoon-ji (Lee Seo-young), who, at 17, is just beginning to explore the possibilities of an independent life but still needs an adult around to look out for her. This is the role which Ui-gang is asked to fill so that his wife can enjoy a short break on Jeju island in the company of Yoon-ji’s mother. He’s resentful about it, but casual observations of the ugly way that other men treat young women persuades him that it’s necessary, even in Yoon-ji thinks she can do everything on her own. This is proven to be the case when she’s targeted by a trafficking ring, prompting a quick demonstration of just what he’s capable of. When other teenager who were present during this incident subsequently turn up dead, however, Ui-gang becomes a suspect and decides to investigate the matter himself. He wonders why Yoon-ji in particular has captured the gang’s interest, and, as she remains in peril, goes in search of answers.

As you would expect, this quest involves a lot of fighting, much of it bloody. The fight choreography is impressive, with a focus on short sequences which allow for the camera to be close to the action, rather than long, roaming set pieces. Occasional comedy moments in the fight scenes don’t always hit the mark, but additional stunt work is woven in very effectively, and Choi knows how to use this to build tension. Here, the fighting is designed to provide excitement but is never allowed to distract from the story, nor to allow respite from the sense of urgency which accompanies much of what Ui-gang has to do. Jang’s fighting style is minimalist, focused on efficiency, whilst some of the other performers use a more showy approach consistent with their characters’ motives. This allows Ui-gang to come across as cooler and more focused, befitting a man who once did this on a professional basis.

There are twists and turns, of course – some more convincing than others – and the sort of plot contrivances which you would expect from this kind of fare. Through it all, Choi evidences a preoccupation with misogyny (which comes from women as well as men), and though the female characters are not positioned as helpless or lacking in agebcy, they are shown to be systematically disadvantaged. Ui-gang’s distance allows him to observe this as a systemic issue rather than being distracted by the specific behaviour of individuals, but over time it clearly influences where his sympathies lie, and is a contributing factor in the bond he develops with Yoon-ji, which feels nothing like the usual cheesy pseudo-parental relationship found in similar action films.

A stylish, energetic piece of action cinema, The Killer will keep you on the edge of your seat, but it will also give you something to think about afterwards.

Reviewed on: 05 Aug 2022
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A retired assassin regains his murderous instincts when the teenage girl he’s looking after is targeted by a gang.

Director: Choi Jae-hun

Year: 2022

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: South Korea

Festivals:

Fantasia 2022

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