Capsule Review: Ballerina 발레리나 (2023)

Not to be confused with next year’s similarly-titled, Ana de Armas-starred Ballerina, this Korean action thriller ironically shared the same theme. And that is revenge. The movie gets off to a promising start: When we first meet Ok-Ju (Jeon Jong-Seo), she happens to be at a convenience store when a gang of thugs tries to rob a part-time cashier. Well, what happens next is a stylishly choreographed fight sequence, showcasing Ok-Ju’s agility and martial arts prowess in dispatching the thugs.

The story is pretty straightforward. We learn that Ok-Ju used to be a bodyguard for Choi Min-Hee (Park Yu-Rim), who is a ballerina. They are also close friends who enjoy each other’s company. Then one night, Ok-Ju finds out Min-Hee has committed suicide when she visits her home. Before she took her own life, she left Ok-Ju a note wanting her to avenge her death.

And so, Ok-Ju is determined to find out the person responsible for Min-Hee’s death. It turns out it has to do with Choi Pro (Kim Ji-Hoon), who is involved in a sex trafficking ring.

On paper, it looks as if Ballerina is heading in the female version of John Wick territory. A protagonist with nothing to lose other than a payback time. Well, I was hoping the movie would have gone the action-packed route. But writer-director Lee Chung-Hyun, reuniting with Jeon Jong-Seo after The Call three years ago, prefers to take his time setting up Ok-Ju’s quest for vengeance. He also inserted brief flashbacks every now and then, giving us glimpses of Ok-Ju and Min-Hee sharing happy moments together as best friends.

The erratic nature of the movie tends to dilute the momentum but surprisingly, Ballerina remains watchable, thanks to Jeon Jong-Seo’s engaging performance as Ok-Ju. I remember the first time she made such a lasting impression on her mesmerising acting debut in Burning (2018). Her no-nonsense portrayal of a vengeful ex-bodyguard who possesses various skills in martial arts and weaponry is physically impressive.

And to justify how she’s willing to go in the name of revenge, she doesn’t scale back when comes to killing a person. In other words, the action is brutal and graphically violent. Lee Chung-Hyun’s frenetic camerawork ratcheted up the tension, giving the action a sense of urgency. He made sure of that, particularly during the violent third act when Ok-Ju single-handedly takes down the bad guys. It was the most memorable moment that leaves me wanting more.

Ballerina may have been emphasised heavily on the revenge part but Lee Chung-Hyun doesn’t forget to lighten up once in a while. This is especially true during a scene of Ok-Ju meets an elderly couple selling all kinds of weapons. It was a welcome respite from the movie’s mostly sullen tone. The atmospheric cinematography helps too, coupled with the brilliant use of colours throughout the movie. While Jeon Jong-Seo excels in her lead role, the movie is also backed by Kim Ji-Hoon’s perfectly sleazy turn as Choi Pro.

Ballerina is currently streaming on Netflix.