The Villainess

“Action cinema levels up in Korea.”

This opens with a blistering seven minutes of action which starts off in first-person perspective, looking like the most deranged video game ever, as the protagonist slices, dices and shoots their way through a building to a confrontation with the final boss. After being slammed head-first into a mirror, the point of view changes and we see the attacker is a young woman, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin). Finishing her slaughter, she calmly accepts arrest, but the Korean intelligence services recruit her, hoping to channel her skills to their own ends, after a spot of plastic surgery to ensure a fresh start. When training is completed, under Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung), she’s given an apartment, unaware that the man next door, Jung Hyun-soo (Sung), is actually her handler. However, he’s not the only person with something to hide. Because Sook-hee is out to leverage her new position, and is still after long-awaited revenge on the man who killed her father.

With a storyline that’s little more than equal parts of Nikita and Kill Bill, deep-fried in a crimson vat, the only way this is going to survive is to be all about the style. Fortunately, it delivers on that aspect by the bucket. I watched that opening sequence three times before I could bring myself to proceed, and other set-pieces are almost as spectacular (and slightly less motion sickness inducing!), such as the sword-fight on speeding motorbikes. Or the final battle on a bus. Or… Yeah, let’s just say, when this is in motion, it’s utterly glorious, demented and bloody beyond belief. The problems are when it isn’t, with a horribly muddled narrative structure which also seems cribbed from Tarantino. So it’s extremely heavy on the flashbacks, and leaps around the heroine’s time-line like an amphetamine crazed mountain-goat. The payoff, when it arrives, certainly isn’t worth the effort: I’d figured it out, well before the dramatic revelation arrives on-screen.

So convoluted and murky is the story, that I found myself increasingly tuning out, and was more or less disinterested in the characters’ fates, most damningly that of Sook-hee. About the only person I cared about was her little, moon-faced daughter, whose serious expressions provoked more emotion in me than all the contortions performed by the plotting. Director Jung, like David Leitch of Atomic Blonde, has a background as a stuntman before moving into direction, and perhaps that explains why it feels as if the attention and effort here have gone into those elements. In comparison, the script is something which could well have been cobbled together on the back of a beer-mat, after an all-night video session, and then run through a shredder in an attempt to instill it with some artistic merit. Jung is certainly an action director to watch, and I’ll be very interested to see where he can possibly go from here. Is there a setting for cinematic violence above eleven?

Dir: Jung Byung-gil
Star: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung

Memories of the Sword

“Looks lovely, yet literally loses the plot.”

memoriesoftheswordThe first 30 minutes of this are truly splendid: it’s got wonderful visuals, along the lines of Hero or House of Flying Daggers. But then, it’s as if the makers completely forgot about the story-line. The remainder of the two hours consists of semi-random scenes, half in flashback, featuring characters who apparently change names at random. While it still looks awesome, unless you have a detailed synopsis printed out in advance, you’re going to be reduced to going “Ooh!” and “Eh?” in roughly equal proportions.

As best as I can tell, the story is this. Hong-ee (Kim), also known as Seoi-hee, is a young martial arts prodigy, trained since birth by her blind foster mother, Seol-rang (Jeon), a.k.a Wallso. After Hong-ee’s talents become public knowledge, Wallso reveals the motive for the training. A long time ago, as Seol-rang, she was one of three rebel group leaders. The group were betrayed to the authorities by another leader, Deok-gi (Lee BH), who was rewarded with a position as the ruler’s right-hand man, and is now known as Yoo-Baek. He once loved Seol-rang, and realizes that Hong-ee is the daughter of the third leader, Poong-Cheon. [Fortunately, he was killed by Deok-gi, so does not complicate the plot further, under that or any other name] She has been brought up to act as an instrument of revenge, driven by the knowledge that Yoo-Baek killed her parents.

There is, it appears, a bit more than that going on, particularly in the middle hour where… other stuff happens. For example, there’s the inevitable romance between Seoi-hee and another young fighter, Yoo-Baek’s champion, Yull (Lee JH). This seems to have been added purely for cynically commercial purposes, though since it largely tanked at the Korean box-office… The action scenes are generally well-staged, though some of the CGI looks more than a little unconvincing. Some moments reminded me of Shaolin Soccer, and there has been close to 15 years of technological advances since then. It’s on more solid footing when using wire-fu, and both female leads are convincing enough in their skills.

The high level of confusion likely generated, however, means this isn’t going to be much more than empty emotional experience. You’re left so busy trying to figure out who’s doing what to whom, and why, you don’t have time to care about the participants. That’s why it falls so significantly short of the films it’s clearly trying to imitate, particularly Crouching Tiger. Instead, what you have here is purely cinema as spectacle. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this approach, of course. It’s just that when so much effort has been put into the technical aspects, you’re inevitably left wishing for more. If only the film’s heart and soul had been as diligently worked on as its cinematography.

Dir: Park Heung-sik
Star: Kim Go-eun. Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Byung-hun, Lee Jun-ho


“The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

motherBong is best known in the West for recent SF film, Snowpiercer, and also for monster movie The Host, but this, which came between those two, is somewhat less of a genre piece. A woman, known only as “Mother” (Kim), lives with her… intellectually-challenged, shall we say, shy son Do-joon (Won) in a small Korean town, making her living as a seller of medicinal herbs and grey-market acupuncturist. When a local schoolgirl is found dead, with one of Do-joon’s golf-balls next to her, he’s immediately the prime suspect, and the police investigation doesn’t bother looking much further. His lawyer is no help, and when the easily-fooled Do-Joon is browbeaten into signing a confession, it appears the case is closed. The only one still convinced of his incident is his Mom, who begins a quest, along with her son’s semi-delinquent friend, Jin-Tae (Jin), to find the truth behind the murder.

Be careful what you wish for, could be the moral of the story here, for the results of Mother’s investigation might not necessarily be what she wants to find. The film deliberately keeps the question of Do-Joon’s guilt or otherwise unresolved, almost until the very end. I suspect any Hollywood version of the same story would not have the guts to walk that tight-rope for as long, and it’s that tension between the audience’s uncertainty and Mother’s absolute, unwavering commitment to, and belief in, her son’s innocence, which largely keeps this interesting as things move forward. You desperately want her faith to be justified; I’ve been in a similar situation, someone I know having been arrested and charged with multiple murders, and denial is an entirely natural reaction. I can only imagine what it’s like for a mother, but in this case, her relentless and fearless pursuit of the real killer is what moves the film into our territory.

It’s not perfect, with neither the opening nor the end being as strong as the middle section deserves, and the resonance of Kim’s history as an actress is largely lost – I wasn’t aware she had spent much of her career in Korea playing the motherly type. There are also moments of strange irrelevance, such as when the cops taking Do-Joon away, are involved in a car crash, for absolutely no reason; it’s not referred to at any other point in the film, and seems a pointless diversion in a film that’s probably overlong, at 129 minutes. However, there’s enough meat here, and a very good central performance, to overcome the weaknesses, and make for an interesting and uniquely independent twist on the female detective sub-genre.

Dir: Bong Joon-ho
Star: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon

Monster (2014)

“Bravery is just not understanding the peril of your situation.”

MonsteNot to be confused with the Charlize Theron movie, this Korean film is truly an odd beast: unlike some, it’s difficult to imagine a Western remake. For the heroine here, Bok-Soon (Kim Go-eun) is what could politely be called “developmentally challenged.” She can just about function, running a vegetable stand, but is largely dependent on her smarter younger sister to keep Bok-Soon out of trouble caused by her quick temper. Tragedy strikes when the pair cross paths with a vicious serial killer, Tae-So (Lee), who uses his pottery kiln to destroy the bodies of his victims. This results from a chain of events which involves a blackmail plot using a mobile phone; Tae-So’s brother (Kim), who tries to turn Tae-So’s psychotic tendencies to his own ends; and Na-Ri (Ahn), a young girl who knows the location of the crucial phone. Tae-So kills Bok-Soon’s sister, leaving her to fend for Na-Ri, while also grabbing a knife and setting out to take revenge on Tae-So. But how can someone like her, who is no match for the killer, physically or intellectually, possibly hope to prevail or even survive the encounter?

My first guess was that Tae-So’s brother was going to play a part; perhaps, realizing the creature he had unleashed could not be reined in or controlled. That absolutely nothing along those lines happens, gives you an idea both of the film’s main strength and its most obvious weakness. It’s far from predictable, yet some of the changes in direction and approach end up being more disconcerting than surprising. At times, it feels like the director couldn’t decide whether to make the film about Tae-So, his brother, or Bok-Soon, and the division of attention feels like it consequently sells all three of them short. If a film can’t commit to a single character, why should the audience? On the other hand, Hwang has a good eye for visuals, and the contrast between the villain and heroine is one of the most striking in recent history. There’s no denying the final encounter between them, in a restaurant already strewn with broken bodies, is a hardcore brawl of ferocious intensity.

Generally, I’m a big fan of intelligent characters, yet Bok-Soon is such a total contrast, it’s a refreshing change: instead of being smart, she has incredible loyalty, indefatigable perseverance to her cause, and absolutely no semblance of fear. Though is it still being brave when you genuinely don’t appreciate the severity of the danger into which you are deliberately placing yourself? That’s the question here, and part of which makes this one both appealing and incomplete. It’s a curious mix of genres, styles and approaches, perhaps making more sense to a Korean eye, But, as Kay Cox wrote, “I love the courage and freedom that comes with being a crazy old lady… no holds, no barriers, no fear.” Apart from the “old” part, that’s true for Bok-Soon: just as with the film, her weakness is also her strength, and makes for a heroine unlike any other I’ve seen.

Dir: Hwang In-ho
Star: Kim Go-eun, Lee Min-ki, Kim Roi-ha, Ahn Seo-Hyun



“A triumph of style over content”

DuelistposterNamsoon (Ha) is a hard as nails detective in medieval Korea. While working undercover at a market on a counterfeiting case, she encounters a masked man (Kang), and battles him before he vanishes, though not before she manages to cut away a fragment of his mask revealing his ‘Sad Eyes’ – the name by which he is known for the rest of the film. What is his tie to the forged money? And why has be been seen going into the house of a powerful government Minister Song (Song)? Namsoon and her mentor, Ahn (Ahn) investigate, though the closer they get to the truth, the more perilous things become, not least because she begins to fall for Sad Eyes, especially after infiltrating Song’s mansion as a courtesan – a task for which she is singularly unsuited. After a public incident, while Ahn has to fire Namsoon from the police force, this is merely a ruse, allowing her to go after the final piece of evidence they need to raid Song’s mansion and bring down his operation.

Rarely have I seen a more beautifully-shot film. Truly, this picture is as pretty as a… er, picture. The cinematography is top-notch, offering a sumptuous feast of visuals that mixes styles and techniques to great effect, and freeing the movie from bothering with banal chores like dialogue for extended periods. Unfortunately, neither the story nor the characters are a match for the look and feel, leaving the viewer largely to admire the film, rather than being engaged by or liking it. As I recall, the director’s previous film, Nowhere to Hide, had much the same issue, pitting two (male, there) adversaries against each other, in a rain-drenched landscape that was emotionally distant – but, boy, did it look good. Here, the action is extremely stylized, resembling a modern dance routine more than a fight in some cases, or even, as one character puts it, “It was like they were making love under the moonlight.” I also sense there are creative anachronisms at work: did they even have cops, never mind lady ones, at this time? However, the biggest weakness is likely the sudden way Namsoon falls for Sad Eyes; she doesn’t seem at all like the kind of person who would do that, and since this supposed relationship is at the film’s emotional heart, it’s a flaw that may explain why this feels so uninvolving.

Under other circumstances, this could well be a fatal flaw, yet there’s still enough for your enjoyment in the eye candy department to make this worth watching, even at a fairly long 111 minutes. One senses that Lee is much more interested in the technical aspects of cinema, rather than the emotional one of connecting with the audience. I can appreciate that side, certainly, yet for a film to be truly successful, there needs to be some yin to go along with the yang, or what results will seems frustratingly incomplete.

Dir: Lee Myung-se
Star: Ha Ji-won, Kang Dong-won, Ahn Sung-ki, Song Young-chang

The Huntresses


“Charlie’s Korean, Medieval Angels”

During the Joseon era in Korea, a trio of bounty hunters, Jin-Ok (Ha Ji-Won), Hong-Dan (Gang Ye-Won) and Ga-Bi (Son Ga-In), work with their agent, Moo-Myung (Ko Chang-Seok), capturing wanted bandits. But they get a different task, after a King’s envoy carrying an encoded message is the latest courier to go missing, and are charged with bringing him in. Needless to say, it’s not a simple task, and they find themselves facing a host of players opposed to the King receiving the message, which would threaten the fragile relationship with the Chinese emperor. But there’s also a personal angle, as Jin-Ok finds herself face-to-face with the man she remembers as having killed her father.


Early on, it becomes abundantly clear that this is not intended to be taken entirely seriously, probably from the time one of the heroines whips out her yo-yo, and takes out an entire platoon of enemies, Sukeban Deka style. Indeed, it’s probably the comedic elements that work best, such as the constable who follows him around, convinced his camo skills will stop him being seen – in a rarity for the humour often seen in Eastern films, it’s a joke which could have been used more, rather than being driven into the ground as normal. However, it feels that this lack of seriousness was taken by the makers as a reason to slap together the story, which lurches from set-piece to set-piece without any sense of logic or narrative flow – and don’t even get me started on the whole “dramatic amnesia” suffered by Jin-Ok.

It’s also fairly obvious the actresses aren’t doing very much of their own action, putting them behind Drew Barrymore et al, and in another galaxy, far, far away, from the participants in another cinematic cousin, The Heroic Trio. Ha probably comes off the best of the three, but there’s an awful lot of scenes which consist largely of close-ups of the actresses flailing wildly, intercut with wide shots from behind of someone competent. However, it still passes the time easily, particularly after all the parties involved end up in the port city of Byeokrando – or, at least, a convincing CGI imitation thereof. This allows plenty of scope for some impressive bits of combat, regardless of who’s actually doing them, as well as exploding pagodas, and other chunks of mass destruction. It also helps that the performances are solid from just about everyone concerned, which shores up the flimsy constructs of the storyline.  I’m informed that the Korean title translates as “Three Beautiful Musketeers of Joseon,” and that’s probably an accurate an overall summary as the preceding 400 words.

Dir: Park Je-Hyun
Star: Ha Ji-Won, Gang Ye-Won, Son Ga-In, Ko Chang-Seok

Miss Conspirator


“A tale – and heroine – of two halves.”

miss conspiratorChun Soo-ro (Go) is a painfully shy, introverted young woman, who is a little more than a bundle of neuroses. At the airport to see off her sister, she encounters a nun, who asks Soo-ro to deliver a package to her boyfriend – a concept which, personally, would set my alarm bells ringing! However, on her arrival, Soo-ro finds the intended recipient dead, and ends up fleeing the scene, in possession of both a large quantity of drugs, and the cash that was intended to pay for them. For obvious reasons, both the White Tiger and Sa gangs, the participants in the deal gone very, very wrong, are rather upset, and go on the hunt for her. For they believe Soo-ro to be the nun, who is unable to disagree, having been killed in a traffic accident. Fortunately, a cop working undercover takes pity and agrees to protect Soo-ro, although his resulting actions lead to exposure – and, meanwhile, the prospect of getting his hands on so much cash leads his boss to stray from the path of true justice. Fortunately, some unexpected hydro-shock therapy leads to a startling transformation in our heroine’s character, and she arranges a meeting between all the interested parties.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but this left me almost entirely cold. Or maybe not, since this wasn’t particularly well-received in its native Korea either, I’m not averse to the “fish out of water” idea – one of my favorite book growing up was Robert Scheckley’s Game of X, about a complete novice who finds himself embroiled in espionage, and I was hoping for something similar here. Unfortunately, this is certainly not funny, only sporadically exciting, ridiculously implausible, and the transition from shrinking violet to ice-cool superwoman is so abrupt as to be entirely disconcerting, almost as if someone switched out movies on you at the 80 minute mark.

From what I’ve read, it seems to have been intended as a showcase for Go, making her feature debut after becoming one of Korea’s best-known TV actresses – mostly for playing roles closer to her later character here. She isn’t bad in the role, and considering how irritating the performance here could have been, the fact that it isn’t deserves some credit. However, “not being irritating” is hardly what you’d call a ringing endorsement for any movie. Things do perk up a little after Soo-ro blossoms into her femme fatale version, and you can’t help thinking this would have been a much better version had the change happened about an hour earlier. Or better still, if it had taken place immediately after the animated opening credit sequence which is one of the movie’s few memorable sequences.

Dir: Park Chul-kwan
Star: Go Hyun-jung, Yoo Hae-jin. Sung Dong-il. Lee Moon-sik

Code Name: Jackal


“Too little, too late.”

codenamejackalFor years, an assassin known as “Jackal”, has eluded all efforts at capture, taking out targets before vanishing without trace. However, it seems that retirement is close, when a note is found, apparently left by the killer. This indicates that they are tired of the chase, and will be in a town’s low-rent hotel, waiting for the police. The cop (Han) who has been hunting Jackal is, understandably, wary and suspects a trick, but sets up a stakeout in the hotel to see what unfolds. However, already in one of the rooms there is K-Pop superstar Choi Hyun (Kim)., who had been hoping to hide out for a bit of peace and quite, only to be kidnapped by a rookie killer (Song), hired by his jilted lover. She’s apparently not very good at her job, especially after Choi convinces her he isn’t actually the star, but a celebrity lookalike. Meanwhile, a local cop (Oh) has been drafted in to help with the stakeout, and the hotel staff are proving rather less than helpful, treating the stakeout as a bonus cash-cow to be milked, rather than a chance to help the authorities.

For much of its running time, there is a great deal of sitting in hotel rooms, alternating with scenes of creeping about around corridors. The overall feel is more like a Korean take on British farce, and I sense a good deal of cultural stuff may fly over Western viewers’ heads – for instance, Kim actually is a K-Pop superstar, so issues like obsessed fans and record company executives with ulterior motives probably have particular resonance. It’s just too static to work, concentrating for spells on the burgeoning relationship between novice killer and her victim, then drifting off to the cops and their surveillance operation. What should be the key question – who is the Jackal, and what is their plan? – seems to be all but forgotten until the very end of the film. This is a shame, because this is both interesting and well-considered. Unfortunately, the overall impact is largely to make you wish it had shown up about an hour earlier, with the film developing forward from there with similar energy.

The performances aren’t bad, and there are occasional moments that are genuinely funny. For instance, the police disguise themselves as hotel cleaners so they can check rooms, only for the real employee to insist they actually do the cleaning. But these are only sporadic at best, and the script is generally so weak, in terms both of setting up the central storyline and executing it, that the final 10 minutes aren’t enough to salvage proceedings. You get the sense that a prequel, or a sequel, covering the Jackal’s exploits before or after this particular incident, would have been more interesting.

Dir: Bae Hyeong Jun
Star: Song Ji Hyo, Kim Jaejoong, Han Sang Jin, Oh Dal-su

Punch Lady


“Battered wife = comedy gold. Or not.”

punch ladyNot unlike The Opponent, this centers on a battered woman, who takes up the pugilistic arts in an attempt to regain control of her life. The big difference here is that, for a great chunk of its running time, this is played for laughs. Yeah: spousal abuse as a topic for broad comedy. Oh, those wacky Koreans! Sarcasm aside, it makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing, simply because such an approach would be almost inconceivable as a mainstream project in the West, due to the backlash. And this certainly was mainstream in Korea, getting a wide, national release – though it bombed, with its box-office performance described as “shockingly bad.” So maybe the Koreans aren’t quite as different from us after all…

The heroine is Ha-eun (To), who has the misfortune to be married to Joo-Chang (Park) and his vicious temper. Worse still, he’s a champion in mixed martial-arts, and doesn’t hesitate to use his ring skills on her and their daughter (Choi). But when he kills an opponent, an ex-boyfriend of Ha-eun, she storms the post-fight press conference, berating him and challenging him to fight her in the ring, rather than outside it. He agrees to do so, with one hand literally tied, and the custody of their daughter going to the winner. No legitimate trainer will touch her, but she finds a much more dubious coach in Soo-hyeon (Son), who is actually her daughter’s Math teacher, and is about to turn the gym into a nursery. However, funded by her ex-boyfriend’s life-insurance policy, of which she was the beneficiary, Ha-eun makes Soo-hyeon a generous offer. He accepts, taking classes at from Joo-chang’s gym, so he can stay one step ahead of his pupil as he trains her for the big fight.

Of course, a huge amount of disbelief needs to be suspended here, not least in the assertion that any legitimate MMA organization would sanction such a match – nothing good could come of it – or that someone (regardless of gender) could go toe-to-toe with an MMA champion, after only a few weeks of training from a clueless adviser. Not happening. It’s also hugely uneven in tone, an almost inevitable flaw as a result of the decision to take the story and treat it largely as the basis for goofy antics. This is at odds with the opening, and also the battle at the end, which is genuinely uncomfortable to watch, as Joo-Chang beats the shit out of Ha-Eun (at least initially; I don’t think saying so deserves classification as a spoiler). I have to say, Kang does a fabulous job of shooting the fight itself: whatever the other weaknesses, he nails it, keeping things interesting and tense throughout. The rest, however, probably needed to go in some different directions to be successful; perhaps, play up the media hysteria more. That said, I think I can say, with a fair degree of confidence, you won’t have seen anything quite like this, and even for that alone, this deserves credit.

Dir: Hyo-jin Kang
: Ji-Won To, Sang-Wook Park, Hyeon-ju Son, Seol-ri Choi

Killer K


Nikita meets Alias, while on vacation in South Korea”

Let’s be clear, right out of the gate. There is really not much original about this Korean mini-series, which takes huge chunks, almost wholesale from Nikita and Alias, to the extent, for example, that we perpetually referred to one character as “Amanda”, since she reminded us so much of Melinda Clarke’s character from Nikita, right down to her fashion choices. However, as long as you’re not looking for anything startling in the way of originality, this is slick yet gritty, with characters that are interesting to spend time with, and a handle on the action that’s easily the match for its equivalent in the West. Let’s start with some significant plot exposition, because there’s quite a lot of characters and story crammed into the three one-hour (or slightly more) episodes.

Spoilers Episode 1. Cha Yeon-Jim (Groo) is having a bad day – she just got expelled from school – and it’s about to get an awful lot worse. Hanging out by the docks, she and her friends get into a confrontation with some workers, only for things to be interrupted by a scripture-quoting hitman, Jang Se Wook, who shows up and starts shooting everyone, on both sides. Cha escapes, but when her friend is killed, as he tries to report what he saw to the police, she realizes she’s in deep trouble. Policeman Choi Tae Young (Baek), who was also at the scene, tries to track her down, but Jang is also after Cha. He wants her to return a flask of green liquid she took in the confusion, and kidnaps her mother to force Cha into compliance. At the handover, Mom is impaled by Jang’s sword and Cha is gunned down and left for dead.

Episode 2. Chief Min Ji Young (Park) comes on the scene, and saves Cha, faking her death. Min works for the same company as Jang, the Mirae Corp, a medical company run by Kwon Do Hwan. They are engaged in some shady experiments involving stem-cell research, and in particular the creation of artificial humans for organ harvesting, with the protection of high-up government ministers. To protect their company secrets, their division SS1 operates ruthlessly: Min recruits Cha as a new killer, not telling her Jang is simply another arm, but training her as an assassin, with the lure of eventually tracking down and taking revenge on the man who killed her mother. Cha’s initial targets are those who pose a threat to her employers, but Min has her own agenda, and when Jang has eventually proven to have outlived his usefulness, she has no compunction about turning her two killers on each other.

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Episode 3. Choi accidentally bumped into Cha in part two, under her new identity, and now teams up with Yoo Sung Ho (Kim), who used to be part of SS1, but bailed with his lover, Cha’s mother, and went into hiding – he was replaced by Chief Min. They are seeking evidence that will let them bring down Mirae and expose their human experiments. Cha wants to leave the organization, having fallen for Go Young Min, a boy at school. Min initially requests “one last hit” – so you know that’s going to work out just fine… In the process, Go sees Cha standing over the corpse of her target, holding the murder weapon, and as a result has to be terminated by Chief Min. That, and the discovery that her schoolmates have been used as guinea-pigs turns Cha against Mirae, and she links up with Choi, as Kwon prepares to reveal his latest plan. End spoilers

Phew. Plenty going on there, with enough for a full 13- or 22-episode order of most series, between all the twists, turns and revelations e.g. turns out Cha’s relationship to Chairman Kwon is rather more personal than she is aware. Given how much gets crammed in, the opening installment is a bit of a slow start. The entire first episode is more or given over to setting up the scenario, with Cha showing very little of the skills she has developed later on. She’s semi-competent in basic martial arts, which is perfectly fine when it comes to beating up fellow pupils. But we soon find out that this level of skill is far from enough, when she comes up against Jang and the other professional killers of SS1. Early on, it’s Choi who is most entertaining, portraying a dutiful and dogged cop whose superiors refuse to give him more than a gas pistol which is, similarly, pretty useless in the clutch.

 It’s the second part where things really take off, as events jump two years forward; the show takes Cha’s training largely as read, save for a quick montage. Instead, her new cold-bloodedness is amply demonstrated in the opening sequence, where we see her sniping out her target at a wedding, despite the presence of children which makes Chief Min call off the hit. It’s clear that this is a new, focused girl, with skills to match. Of course, as is standard for the genre, she still has to deal with everyday issues, since she has been sent back to school [which, conveniently, also offers a suitable tower from which to carry out missions, as can be seen above]. From there, through to her final confrontation with Cha and his minions, it’s an excellent bit of TV, one of the most intense action-heroine episodes I’ve seen in any genre, with the heroine taking obvious damage, both mentally and physically, as things proceed.

Let’s pause for breath before we hit the finale. One thing we noted was that Korean rules regarding what can be broadcast on TV are apparently a good deal laxer than in the US. This was, apparently, a late-night series, and it’s not clear if this was “over the air” or cable; there’s apparently advert breaks, but that could still make it something like FX or AMC. [Edit: CGV channel is “a movie cable channel”, so SHOtime or HBO would be closer parallels] The violence is generally crunchy and squibby, but it’s the female nudity that’s an unexpected pleas… er, particularly striking. :) There does also appear to be some confusion over the title of the show, which I’ve seen called several different variations of the letter K, as noted above. Here, I’ve gone with what appears on the intro screen in English for each episode.

We were kinda wondering where things might go in the last episode, with Cha having apparently sorted things out. Never mind: a whole new catalog of problems raise their heads, as the removal of her justification for assassination leaves her seeking a return to the normal life, one Chief Min is none too keen to offer. With its emphasis on discovering the truth about SS1 and the organization behind it, this episode reminded me of Alias after Sidney Bristow discovered. Meanwhile, dealing with boy issues was a throwback to early Buffy. However, the human experimentation thread was a fresh ingredient, and the episode didn’t pull from the darkness, with a subplot involving a Mirae whistleblower and SS1’s efforts to hush it up. Even if Cha and Min suddenly can’t hit the side of a barn in their final confrontation, the threads are satisfactorily tied up down the stretch, with an ending pilfered shamelessly from My Wife is Gangster 2, that hopefully hints at more to come down the line.

As noted, most of the content is material with which most genre aficionados will already be extremely familar, but there seems always to be room for another “faked death assassin” – Nikita alone has already led to three movies and a pair of television series. It’s the execution(s) that matter here, and this is easily the match of Western action heroine productions of late. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up heading over to the West in some form or other, most likely a remake, as has been the case for some many Korean, Japanese and HK movies in recent years. If so, they’ll have to do sterling work to match up with this original.

[Thanks to Hyomil for most of the pics. Killer K can be enjoyed in a subbed version online, through sites such as, albeit with a somewhat irritating sous-title commentary, which makes watching the show like sitting in the theater with a bunch of chatty teenagers. Still, better than nothing!]

Dir: Kim Jong Hyun
Star: Han Groo, Park Hyo Joo, Baek Do Bin, Kim Jung Tae
a.k.a. Girl K, Little Girl K, Killer Girl K