Casual viewers who consume various forms of entertainment have a plethora of options at their disposal, and they can choose from them based on how they are feeling. If you are sad, you can watch a comedy to cheer you up. If you want to be thrilled, you can pick an adventure or an action film. If you want to be scared, dive into the horror genre. You get the gist, right? But those who watch films professionally don’t have a choice. You just have to watch all the latest releases, and it’s totally up to the entertainment gods to send you a good combo of movies and shows, or an absolutely atrocious one. You don’t really feel the desperation when you jump from one average film or show to another. However, you start to feel hunger and starvation when you are plowing through muck. And if you get a good film after that ordeal, it genuinely feels like a blessing. For me, that movie is Ballerina.
Lee Chung-hyun’s Ballerina tells the story of Ok-ju, a former bodyguard who can turn pretty much anything around her into a weapon, as proven by the opening fight sequence in a convenience store. One of her best and only friends is Min-hee, who calls her to her apartment for a chat. But when Ok-ju gets there, all she finds is a gift-wrapped box and Min-hee’s dead body lying in a tub. The box contains a pair of ballet shoes and a note asking Ok-ju to avenge her. A closer look at it reveals the social media ID of a chef who sells meal boxes. Ok-ju shoots him a DM, and it becomes clear that the number of soy sauce packets is code for the number of packets of drug one wants. Ok-ju observes the exchange from afar and then follows the seller, Choi Pro, to his palatial home. The following day, Ok-ju breaks in and finds out that Choi Pro is a perverted individual who drugs unsuspecting women, makes explicit videos of them, and then forces them to do their bidding by threatening to leak the aforementioned videos. When Ok-ju notices that one of those videos features Min-hee, she realizes that that’s what caused Min-hee to take her life.
As you can see, Ballerina has a pretty simple narrative. Every retired samurai, assassin, cowboy, law enforcer, and warrior’s story is the same. They live a life of violence, and the weight of the bodies they have slaughtered starts to erode their souls. Just as they are about to embrace death, someone enters their life, which makes the act of living seem worthwhile. Of course, reality catches up, and they are forced to resurrect their old persona and bathe the city red. Despite the simplicity of this premise, it’s an action sub-genre that’s filled with men because producers can’t see women delivering some sweet, sweet revenge. But here’s the thing: fictional men wreaking havoc is synonymous with the history of male violence. Fictional women wreaking havoc seek to offer catharsis after the centuries of trauma that women have faced at the hands of men. In addition to that, as depicted by Chung-hyun, a female action hero gets to explicitly say that the male gaze is wrong, and she inspires women to never allow men to define them not just with her words but with her fists as well.
Although Ballerina doesn’t offer a lot of backstory, Chung-hyun crafts some sublime moments between Ok-ju and Min-hee to underscore why the former treasured that relationship. Despite enduring and inflicting years of violence, Ok-ju felt hope, love, and warmth every time she was in Min-hee’s presence. She started to see Min-hee as her path to salvation. But Chung-hyun critiques this cliche by showing that, after a point, if you don’t become aware of your self-centeredness and if you don’t start seeing your loved one as an individual, you won’t have a deeper understanding of their true state of mind. Min-hee always showed her sunny, rosy side because that’s what helped Ok-ju stay on the path of healing. She never got assurance from Ok-ju that she wouldn’t be judged if she opened up about being a victim. Ok-ju does get a second chance at rectifying this aspect of her personality. But since second chances are rare in real life, maybe we should make it a point to check on our loved ones all the time. In addition to these themes and commentaries, Chung-hyun ensures that the dialogue writing is always economical. That doesn’t mean it’s all cut and dry. It’s juicy and humorous, while also being direct and to the point.
Talking about restraint, the action scenes are spectacular. As an action fan, I love all kinds of fight sequences if they’re intelligently choreographed and performed. But as of late, and I kind of blame John Wick for it (in a complimentary way), a lot of mainstream action films are failing to find the right balance. Sometimes, they go on for too long and lose their steam. Sometimes, they are too short, and they fail to be impactful. Ballerina’s action scenes are short and sweet. For example, there’s a moment where Ok-ju gets cornered in her apartment, and it could’ve gone on for at least 2–3 minutes. However, a few blows are exchanged, and then Ok-ju escapes because she is on the back foot. If she dies there, she won’t get her revenge. If she lives, she’ll get the opportunity to have the upper hand. Hence, she escapes instead of fighting. The cinematography, editing, and use of practical effects to accentuate the attacks are reminiscent of action films from the mid-2000s. All of it can seem a little over-edited and over-stylized. That said, every frame is purposefully placed in a well-thought-out sequence so as to elicit the appropriate reaction. Chung-hyun and his team subvert a lot of expectations in order to critique the male ego, and they give Jeon Jong-seo so many opportunities to simply go berserk, and she capitalizes on them. Without exaggeration, Ballerina is one of the best-looking films of the year, and it features some of the best action that I have ever seen.
Coming to the performances, Jeon Jong-seo is unbelievably good, and that’s something that I was aware of before getting into Ballerina because of the way she sent chills down my spine in The Call (also directed by Lee Chung-hyun). So, I am familiar with her cold, dark stares. But by adding just a tinge of melancholy in those eyes, she instantly makes Ok-ju a memorable character. And then there are the action scenes. Of course, they involve stunt doubles, and of course, Jeon Jong-seo does a lot of her own fighting. However, it’s the sense of anticipation that she creates with her body language and her dialogue delivery that truly elevates the setpieces. She deserves all the awards in the world. Kim Ji-hoon and the entire team of Ballerina know that they’ve created one of the hottest and most despicable villains in film history with Choi. That’s why there are several lines of dialogue underscoring this very fact. And you’ll know that that’s a fact, not a matter of opinion, as soon as you lay your eyes on Ji-hoon. He’s magnetic, evil, cringeworthy, and disturbing all at the same time. Park Yu-rim is radiant, and her chemistry with Jong-seo is palpable. As for the supporting cast and all the actors who catch Jong-seo’s punches, they are amazing.
In conclusion, Ballerina is a great time. As mentioned before, it is totally possible that my overly positive reaction to the film is a result of the treacherous road that I had to traverse before getting here. But it’s also possible that the film is actually brilliant. By the way, this has joined the pantheon of great women-led Netflix action films that have been released this year, i.e., Kill Boksoon, Mother’s Day, and Furies. All of them are unique in their own ways and all of them are awesome. Maybe you should do a quadruple feature with these titles. It’ll definitely give you a much-needed break from the testosterone parade that’s going on in the action genre. Please feel free to check out Ballerina on Netflix (not to be confused with the movie of the same name that’s set in the John Wick franchise), form your own opinion, and then share your thoughts with us.