Ballerina 2023 Movie Review
In the slick opening of South Korean action-thriller Ballerina, a disaffected young woman named Ok-ju (Jeon Jong-seo) effortlessly fends off a gang of knife-wielding robbers with canned pineapples. It’s a dynamo sequence set in a cramped convenience store that instantly establishes two things. Firstly, Ok-ju is a certified badass with an absurd degree of combat skill. Secondly, this movie’s fight scenes are going to be barbaric ballets – gorgeously brutal and giddily kinetic. Beyond that, we quickly learn that Ok-ju is an elite private security contractor, and that she has one friend in the world, Min-hee (Park Yu-rim), the film’s titular dancer.
Unfortunately for Ok-ju, she finds out that her kind and bubbly companion has committed suicide when she goes over to visit one night. On Min-hee’s bed, she spots a letter pleading for Ok-ju to take revenge. This puts our battle-hardened bodyguard on a warpath, determined to find out why her friend killed herself and savagely punish everyone responsible. After a little sleuthing, she discovers that Min-hee had been coerced into slavery by a drug and human trafficking ring. She zeroes in on mid-level boss Choi Pro (Kim Ji-hoon), the sadomasochistic monster who filmed himself date raping Min-hee and threatened to shame her by leaking the video – unless she complies to his organisation’s demands.
The movie’s premise and progression is as straightforward as a story can get – track down the bad guys, then kill the bad guys. It may seem bare bones, but over the past decade, some of the greatest action films ever produced – like Indonesia’s The Raid or Hollywood’s John Wick franchise – have done away with convoluted plots by focusing on physical storytelling and spectacular choreography. This streamlining formula has practically rejuvenated action cinema because it distills what the genre’s audiences truly want from the experience. Simplicity can be elegant, one must be careful not veer into simplistic, which can be monotonous. Ballerina teeters on the edge both.
On the one hand, it’s a no-nonsense Occam’s razor that leads straight to the satisfaction of vengeance and the undiluted adrenaline of violence. On the other hand, the lack of character work and backstory for Ok-ju heralds a severe lack of emotional investment for the audience. The script does use flashbacks to establish the basis of Ok-ju and Min-hee’s friendship, but those sepia-tinged memories of them sharing a birthday cake or strolling on a beach are so paper thin that they feel perfunctory instead of potent. Thankfully, the heinousness of the film’s villains pick up the slack, giving us more than enough reason to root for our heroine.
Naturally, action is where Ballerina excels. Lee Chung-hyun’s direction is simultaneously gnarly and graceful. The way his camera follows the bloodshed is intensely visceral, evoking the fluid movement and off-kilter angles of B-movie masterpieces such as Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade. Meanwhile, the film’s seedy and neon-drenched visual aesthetic is reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s noir-thrillers, particularly Only God Forgives. Though Lee’s influences are worn on his sleeves, the way he amalgamates them into his own brand of turbo-charged carnage and martial arts madness is dazzling. Much praise must be given to the practical stunt work as well, which succeeds in making every cut, blow and gunshot feel as real as possible.
Due to its narrative shortcomings, Ballerina probably won’t become a cult classic like its aforementioned inspirations. Nevertheless, this film is still one hell of a ride. If you aren’t squeamish, this compact and stylish actioner will deliver enough impressive fights to keep your brain untaxed and your heart racing throughout.