“Ballerina” unfurls a dark, riveting tapestry, artfully intertwining brutal vengeance and a deeply personal journey of its lead, Ok-ju, portrayed by the captivating Jeon Jong-seo, within a world where morality is obscured by shadows and violent retribution. Directed by Lee Chung-hyun, whose debut “The Call” left an indelible mark in the cinematic realm, “Ballerina” immerses its audience into a visceral exploration of payback amidst the neon and blood-soaked streets that have become characteristic of stylized action thrillers.
Jeon Jong-seo reunites with the director, stepping into the relentless shoes of Ok-ju, a laconic, isolated figure who once operated as a ruthlessly efficient assassin for a nefarious international organization. Her existence, enveloped in a quiet solitude post-severance from the lethal world of contract killings, experiences an abrupt disruption following an unexpected, tragic communication from an old friend. When she receives a desperate, somber call from Min-hee, a ballerina she once held a profoundly close relationship with, Ok-ju is inevitably yanked back into the grim abyss of violence and chaos she once maneuvered within.
The story pivots dramatically when Ok-ju discovers Min-hee’s lifeless form and a cryptic message that beckons her into a relentless quest for retribution. Guided by her departed friend’s vague clues and her intrinsic, formidable skills, Ok-ju finds herself entwined with a nefarious drug dealer, Chef Choi, played with a sinister aura by Kim Ji-hoon, plunging headfirst into a whirlwind of organized crime, depravity, and brutal confrontation.
While the film vividly paints the town red with its audacious action sequences and opulent neon aesthetics, it could be argued that “Ballerina” finds itself in a familiar ballet with pre-existing works within the super-stylized genre. Echoes of Luc Besson’s “Nikita,” Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy,” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” reverberate through Lee’s sophomore effort, potentially borrowing the rhythmic beats of narrative arcs and aesthetic choices that could liken it to its influential predecessors.
Navigating through the affluent, emotionally detached antagonists and an undeniably skilled yet emotionally enigmatic protagonist, “Ballerina” pirouettes through established tropes, which, albeit executed with a polished finesse, may hover on the brink of being discerningly recognizable to ardent fans of the genre. The cascade of handsome villains, convoluted criminal underbelly, and the protagonist’s stoic disposition amidst violence have become somewhat synonymous with such narratives, potentially subduing the innovative potential beneath its slick, shimmering exterior.
Yet, Jeon Jong-seo’s performance as the steely, resolute Ok-ju elevates the film, her potent blend of subtle emotional vulnerability and lethal proficiency crafting a character that transcends mere archetype. Her minimalist emotive expressions juxtaposed against the extreme, unyielding violence she dispatches crafts a dichotomy that is as intriguing as it is chilling. Furthermore, the nuanced, implied complexity of Ok-ju’s relationship with Min-hee offers a tantalizing glimpse into deeper emotional waters, which, if further explored, might have propelled “Ballerina” into uncharted territories of the genre.
The film, while finding itself potentially oscillating between homage and derivation in the future, especially with a similarly themed John Wick spin-off on the horizon, stands as a gleaming, albeit somewhat safe, endeavor into the thematic realms of vengeance, loyalty, and the blurred lines between. It serves a visual feast of stylish action, underpinned by a character who, with a bit more narrative depth and exploration, could have spun this familiar tale into an unforeseen pirouette of originality and emotional depth.
“Ballerina” thus, performs a familiar dance, yet it does so with undeniable elegance and a lead whose quiet strength and subtle emotional complexity lure the audience into its violent, neon-soaked embrace, offering a tantalizing ‘what could have been’ in its shadowed, blood-streaked corridors.