dir: Lee Chung-hyun
Ballerina is a South Korean actioner where a depressed looking woman kills a bunch of men for the purposes of revenge, and also because they’re a pile of criminal misogynist arseholes.
This is not unlike many of the South Korean action films I’ve seen over the last few years. In fact, now that I think of it, even when the lead character wasn’t a woman, in at least 3 films I can think of, there was a depressed female co-star who for whatever backstory reasons had access to weapons and skills in order to punish a bunch of criminals.
It seems to be a common trope, but I guess I don’t watch enough South Korean movies to know how pervasive it is. Could just be a coincidence. Could just be that the times where I’m intrigued enough to start watching a South Korean violence action flick, it just so happens to have a depressed young woman wanting to get revenge on a bunch of loathsome criminals.
Maybe it says more about me than it does about South Korean cinema.
The film opens with a scene at a convenience store where a bunch of crims assault and try to rob the attendant. A young woman in a hoodie just wants to buy her can of soup or bag of crisps or whatever, and doesn’t even seem to really acknowledge that anything is going on. Once the shitheads start actively attacking her, she goes into full-blown Wolverine mode and starts tearing them apart with whatever is to hand, despite the fact that they have knives and use a lot of harsh language.
Ok-ju (Jeon Jong-seo) is some kind of former…I’m not entirely sure what. Bodyguard for hire? Security contractor? Often in these kinds of films the person is an ex or current National Intelligence Service agent, someone with serious skills and a sociopathic ability to apply them to…other sociopaths.
But none of that seems relevant here. Ok-ju at some point had a friend, one friend in this world, and the friend calls her and asks her to come over, but is dead before Ok-ju even arrives, though she doesn’t know it yet.
There is also a scene where a distraught and overwhelmed ballerina, presumably the one of the title, presumably the one that’s just killed herself, stumbles and falls during a performance of Swan Lake. At least I think it’s Swan Lake.
All these ballets look the same to me.
Min-hee (Park Yu-rim) is everything that Ok-ju is not: she is sunny and bright and literally glows whenever they are together. Now this next bit may not make a lot of sense. I have no idea what the relationship is between the two women. Were they friends, were they lovers, no idea. But they were close, and the only time we ever see Ok-ju close to happy it’s when she’s with Min-hee.
And here’s another thing that may not make a lot of sense – I think she’s the ballerina of the title, but I don’t know that she was a ballerina for reals? Not many ballerinas work in American-style diners or cake shops as a side gig, but maybe I just am way too ignorant of Korean and ballet culture.
None of this really matters because the truth is, within the context of the story, something absolutely horrific happened to Min-hee, which I won’t go into, but she implores Ok-ju to get revenge for her on the piece of absolute shit that did this to her.
Ok-ju has skills beyond brutal hand to hand combat. She can also track people down. And she tracks down the absolute piece of Lamborghini-driving shit called Choi Pro (Kim Ji-hoon), and tries to take him out.
Of course, Choi is part of a criminal network, but abusing women and recording it is a personal hobby and a side hustle to make extra money. Those Lamborghinis don’t pay for themselves.
This is the kind of revenge movie that does, really, take the time to make you hate the villains so much that you crave their death, and feel immensely frustrated each time that righteous fate is dodged or delayed. Even knowing that it will come eventually doesn’t salve the many wounds along the way.
Yet I am a person who wishes no one harm, not even the most villainous, the most depraved, the worst. But they make it so hard not to loathe them…
The men depicted in this flick don’t think of women as people. As human. They are at best a convenience, and at worst some barely corporeal thing that can be abused, murdered and disposed of at will. It’s horrible how mundane it is.
It’s sickening, of course, but it’s meant to be sickening. We are meant to be sickened by it, because we know how wrong it is. That it justifies the bloodshed that ensues, well, this is fiction, and these guys are the worst, so the entertainment is in watching them get their just deserts in artful and extreme ways.
The action scenes are brutal and frenetic. Jeon Jong-seo does most of her own stunts and looks committed and believable as a killer far more dangerous than her size would imply. Though this is a story that uses trafficking / coercive slavery and sexual abuse as its central plank, thankfully it’s all implied rather than depicted, and what is implied is horrific enough.
The cold sociopathy of these male character’s misogyny…it’s quite disturbing. It should be, but it worries me as to what it’s potentially saying about a society as conservative and patriarchal as South Korea. Are they that cool with it, in general, more so than other places (that exploit and treat women so terribly)?
It’s hard for me to say whether this flick would connect with audiences other than Korean ones. There’s probably a lot I miss, but that’s okay. I want what I got out of this flick, I just wish it didn’t feel so familiar. I also think there’s perhaps the implication that Ok-ju is neuro-divergent or on the autism spectrum, and I feel like there’s too many movies using that as a crutch, but since they never make it explicit, I guess they’re immune to the power of my criticism (formidable though it might be).
The ending on the beach, was somehow comical, somehow underlined the justifications for the protagonist’s actions by having the main antagonist say even worse shit than all his actions indicated, but also manages to be wrapped up in another beautiful moment from Ok-ju’s memory of what a sweet person Min-chee was, and how much she’s lost in not having her around anymore, and after an horrific act, somehow manages to end on an image of great beauty, beneath the waters.
Ballerina isn’t a great film, but it will do.
7 times flamethrowers can be used for all sorts of pest control out of 10
“You’ve blown things way out of proportion. Do you even realise that?” – with these honeyed words, you thought you’d save yourself, horrible jerk? - Ballerina