Jeon Jong-seo is an avenging angel in blood-soaked ‘Ballerina’

1 of 4 | Jeon Jong-seo is out for revenge as Ok-ju in the Netflix original “Ballerina,” which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival and launches Friday on the streaming platform. Photo courtesy of BIFF

BUSAN, South Korea, Oct. 6 (UPI) — Ballerina starts with violence, ends with violence and — you guessed it — has plenty of violence in between.

Director Lee Chung-hyun’s hyper-stylized, fast-paced revenge drama sometimes feels about as realistic as a video game, but it is grounded by the intense lead performance of Jeon Jong-seo as Ok-ju, a former bodyguard on the hunt for a very bad man.

The Netflix original premiered at the Busan International Film Festival and goes live on the platform Friday. Ballerina is one of five films and series Netflix is bringing to this year’s BIFF, a festival that has been on the leading edge of adding streaming content to its official selections over the last few years.

The film’s titular ballerina is Min-hee (Park Yoo-rim), Ok-ju’s best — maybe only — friend. When Min-hee is found dead, the note she leaves behind sends Ok-ju on the trail of the suave and mysterious Choi Pro (Kim Ji-hoon).

And once she’s got a lead, Ok-ju hits the ground running on a journey through a neon-soaked world of human trafficking, digital porn rings, underground drug labs, balletic fight scenes and a whole lot of blood.

But as over-the-top evil as Ballerina’s villains are, they carry with them unnerving echoes of notorious real-life crimes against women in South Korea, such as the online Nth room blackmail scandal.

It was a desire to deliver a sense of justice for such cases, at least symbolically, that served as an inspiration for the film, Lee told UPI in an interview in Busan on Friday.

“At the time, I thought that we didn’t get the closure we needed,” the director said. “There was a lot of anger and rage among people. And I thought that while we cannot do this in reality, at least through film, we could get some sort of resolution.”

That resolution comes in the form of avenging angel Ok-ju, whose career training taught her how to fight, shoot guns and turn anything — even canned fruit — into a lethal weapon. We learn almost nothing else of her backstory, and she doesn’t appear to have any hobbies or interests outside of delivering vengeance for her friend Min-hee, whom we meet in gauzy flashbacks that hint at perhaps something more brewing in their relationship.

For Jeon, however, the blank slate of Ok-ju’s characterization was a feature, not a bug,

“I’ve always wanted to do a revenge piece, and I think I’m usually drawn to those characters that really are just ruthless,” she told UPI. “There’s no complexity there. They just go straight at it and are driven by having lost something that means a lot to them.”

At the same time, Ok-ju’s wrathful reaction to her friend’s death hints at deeper currents beneath the surface, Jeon added.

“You can tell that she has had these certain issues in her past and she’s lived a life where she has suppressed all of it,” she said. “And I think that it doesn’t really need any overt explanation for the audience to understand that.”

Ballerina is Jeon’s second film with Lee Chung-hyun, after her starring role in his 2020 time-travel thriller The Call.

The actress made a splash in her very first role as the impulsive lead character in the critically acclaimed 2018 film Burning and reached international stardom in the 2022 Netflix series Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area.

The vain and sadistic Choi Pro, meanwhile — played by Jeon’s Money Heist co-star Kim Ji-hoon — matches Ok-ju for single-mindedness in his pursuit of wealth and depraved thrills.

The role was a departure for Kim, who rose to fame in romantic comedies such as The Golden Age of Mothers-in-Law and Goddess of Marriage.

“Obviously, I did have my doubts or concerns,” Kim told UPI. “However, I felt after reading through the script, that there was enough charm in the character that could offset [his evil].”

Still, Kim said, there was no way to get inside a figure this unredeemable.

“There are characters you have to approach with method acting but this is not one of those,” he said. “So I had to be very cool-headed and reasonable in my approach.”

Clocking in at 93 minutes, there is no time for second-guessing or shades of gray in Ballerina. It is a revenge-fueled romp that aims, and mostly succeeds, to deliver an adrenaline shot of violence, stylish spectacle and a hint of much-needed real-world catharsis.

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