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Ballerina: A look into feminine power and fury

Feminine Power and Fury: A Look into ‘Ballerina’

Even before his official debut as a feature film director, Lee Chung-hyun, who has been highly regarded as a rising star in Korean film industry has been attracting significant attention. In the realm of sports, one could consider him a top-tier promising talent. Director Lee Chung-hyun gained recognition at various domestic and international film festivals with his short film ‘Bargain’ even before his formal debut. Through this work, he received a love call from the prominent Korean film production company YONG Film and made his first feature film debut, ‘Call,’ as a Netflix original series, which garnered attention. This year, at the Busan International Film Festival, ‘Ballerina’ made its debut, marking his second feature film as a director.

This Netflix original film garnered attention from the get-go, starting with its cast. The lover of director Lee Chung-hyun, Jeon Jong-seo, who received acclaim through ‘Call,’ transformed into Jang Ok-joo, a former bodyguard dreaming of revenge against a psychopathic murderer. Kim Ji-hoon, who displayed his eerie side in ‘Flower of Evil,’ took on the role of the main villain, Choi Pro. Scene-stealer Park Yoo-rim from ‘Drive My Car’ played the role of Ballerina and Min-hee.

‘Ballerina’ is a film that contemplates how to make a revenge drama more fun. It presents the question of how to add more ‘fun’ to the typical revenge narrative. The film follows the traditional structure of a revenge drama, with Ok-joo finding meaning in life after meeting her old classmate Min-hee, Pro leading Min-hee to death, and Ok-joo seeking revenge on him. Director Lee Chung-hyun’s considerations on how to create a delicious dish with these ingredients can be examined from three main aspects.

Firstly, it provides visual appeal through its exotic settings. In the Korean film industry, there are quite a few outstanding female revenge films. From a storytelling perspective, there are notable works such as ‘Aurora Princess,’ visual intensity in films like ‘The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol,’ and strong characters in films like ‘Miss Baek.’ ‘Ballerina’ stands out for its visual appeal, akin to ‘Kill Bill.’ To achieve this, it recreates visuals that remind us of Hollywood movies by incorporating Western-style restaurants, mansions, and desert landscapes. Especially in the scene where Pro, who has been wronged by Ok-joo, vows revenge, Kim Ji-hoon’s long hair style in that scene reminds us of the Joker. Furthermore, the flashbacks where Min-hee remembers Ok-joo depict a variety of colorful scenes, portraying the beautiful times in contrast to the harsh reality.

Secondly, it attempts to twist clichés. From the moment in the early to mid-section of the film when the anticipated showdown between Ok-joo and Pro is expected to take place, ‘Ballerina’ shows its intention to depart from the clichés of the revenge genre and make a difference in the detailed development. Particularly, the film breaks free from the clichés inherent in the genre by emphasizing differentiation in the specific progression, rather than completely abandoning the basic framework of crime and revenge. In particular, the climactic scene defies the conventional formula of a final showdown and offers a new flavor.

Lastly, it incorporates a theme with social relevance. The title ‘Ballerina’ simultaneously conveys meanings of oppression and freedom. Pro perpetrates digital sexual crimes, pushing Min-hee into a corner. Being a ballerina requires meticulous body management. When this repression of the body is imposed by others, Min-hee lives in fear that someone can see her body. Min-hee’s dance symbolizes liberation from this oppression by someone else. The film aims to showcase the solidarity among women as Ok-joo’s journey mirrors the expansion of the meaning of ‘Ballerina’ to include her. Director Lee Chung-hyun, who has once again proven his ability to tell women’s stories, following “Call,” used these three elements to create a film with solid bones, although it leaves a lingering sense of dissatisfaction in terms of satisfaction.

The reason ‘Bargain’ received significant attention was not only due to the fun it provided through formal reversals but also because of the director’s refreshing and lively directing style. This aspect played a role in why this short film was turned into an original series on Tving. However, in the case of feature films, Lee Chung-hyun appears to lack the focus needed to lead a single story. While there is stimulation through Ok-joo’s action and the emotions elicited through romance, the level of excitement that should pervade the overall atmosphere of the film is absent, resulting in some moments of tedium.

In terms of direction as well, there is an absence of the power needed to smoothly guide the entire drama, with only captivating visuals and momentary sensibility. These drawbacks were also pointed out in his previous work, ‘Call.’ In the case of ‘Ballerina,’ the film abandoned many of the enjoyable elements of the revenge genre while subverting clichés. Other elements that could have filled this void should have been effectively utilized. However, the film primarily focused on the director’s stylistic choices rather than achieving a dramatic completeness, leaving a sense of disappointment.

Recently, there is no shortage of directors in the Korean film industry who lack dissatisfaction with their stylistic choices. Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon, among others, bring their unique styles, while newcomers like Bong Seong-hyun and Park Hun-jung also achieve impressive results. It’s not an easy situation to rely solely on a refined directing style. ‘Ballerina’ was a work that left us with a sense of disappointment, considering the growth trajectory of the promising talent in Chungmuro, who gained recognition for their fresh attempts, audacious imagination, and distinctive worldview.


Author Nat.O
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