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Film Review: Ballerina

English Title: Ballerina

Korean Title: 발레리나

Director(s): Lee Chung-hyun

Screenwriter(s): Lee Chung-hyun

Studio: Climax Studio

Released: 2023

Runtime: 1h 33m

Starring: Jeon Jong-seo, Kim Ji-hoon, Park Yu-rim


Ballerina

This is a relatively simple revenge action-thriller. Jang Ok-ju (Jeon Jong-seo) is a bodyguard. At the death of her best friend Choi Min-hee (Park Yu-rim), who is a ballerina, Ok-ju discovers that Min-hee was somehow involved with an individual in the criminal underworld, so Ok-ju goes after this individual.


To those who expect constant action from the end of the first act to the finish, you may be disappointed. Although it does have action, it is not quite that type of film.


It is difficult to judge this film. It is a good enough film, but beyond the simple premise and plot, I am not sure what the director and writer intend exactly. Perhaps he intends to be as balanced as possible, which is fair enough.


The first half hour or so, Ok-ju does recon which is good to see. There is mystery and intrigue and a moderate amount of tension that comes with it. It does not cheaply jump into a killing spree after fifteen minutes. (More on that later.)


Jang Ok-ju (Jeon Jong-seo)
Jang Ok-ju (Jeon Jong-seo)

As for the friendship that Ok-ju and Min-hee had, it takes the less-is-more approach. By having Min-hee’s death at the start, the audience is not shown this friendship let alone its development in the present. Only occasional glimpses in the form of flashbacks are shown, so the narrative avoids getting bogged down by this.


But is this minimalist approach enough? Does it convey Ok-ju’s grief and what Min-hee meant to her? Ok-ju is an introvert who is seemingly cool, the type that is prone to depression. (That is an observation, not a criticism.) Min-hee is more outgoing and positive. I think anyone who has been involved in a friendship in which the introvert was befriended by someone more outgoing can relate, particularly if one is the introvert. Although Min-hee does not have much screen time, Park Yu-rim has that “mostly innocent and vulnerable” screen presence. It may be a simple way to go about the pathos but it works well enough.


Visually, it is nicely shot. The palette and lighting are effective throughout, dark and a little gritty but without overdoing the neon. The film also plays with angles, including the use of Dutch angles.


There are also quite a few off-center shots, at least initially, but this is used less as the film progresses. I am not sure if this is deliberate as a reflection of Ok-ju’s mindset; that is, her grief is surreal initially but then she becomes focused on her hunt. If that is the reason, then that is fair enough but I think those off-center shots could still be used throughout. In any case, it is a little arty but the film doesn’t push it to the point that it becomes pretentious.


The biggest visual weakness is that some of the action sequences try too hard to be frenetic and the viewer can easily miss some of the movements. The attempt is appreciated but both the camerawork and film editing can dial it back just a little in those moments.


As mentioned above, this film does not have constant action. After the first half an hour, one half-expects it to get going but then it doesn’t quite hit. Perhaps the writer and director want to avoid the cliché but, in any case, it’s not as if the plot does not progress. Ok-ju tries to make things happen, there is the expected retaliation and so on. It’s not as if the film is boring and it does end with a relatively bigger sequence.


It can use another two action sequences. They need not be long and elaborate, just enough to keep up a rhythm. Also, more effort into the gunfight would improve the work immensely. Ok-ju is meant to be a trained bodyguard, and it’s not that we don’t see her skills, but it would be nice to see her reload a few times. It would also be sensible to see her switch from a (six-shot) revolver to a different pistol instead of realizing the switch a second after the cut which makes it look like she let off more than six shots on the revolver even though she didn’t. Although it’s not meant to be John Wick, these details still matter.


The last issue is the lack of a denouement. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Ok-ju will get rid of the people she wants to get rid of. Any viewer knows that will be the case but what happens after? The audience is shown Ok-ju’s grief and memories of her friend, so it is reasonable to want to see how Ok-ju deals with her grief beyond the violence.


Overall, despite needing more action and attention to a few details, it is still a sufficiently satisfying film. The plot is straightforward and clear, the film mostly looks good, and the performances are convincing, so all this partially makes up for the weaknesses.

 

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