“Ballerina” (2023) Is Korea’s Next Cult Hit Hiding In Plain Sight

Jeff Light
7 min readDec 5, 2023
Lead actress Jun Jong-seo, star of “Burning” (2018) and “The Call” (2020)

“Oldboy meets John Wick” is probably the elevator pitch for this movie, and it definitely does start out as one of those ‘you took away the one thing I cared about and now you’re going to pay’ revenge flicks. But as the film goes, it shows even more of a visual and auditory flair than those films, and it’s revealed to have a lot more depth, to boot.

Coming in to this film, what Koreans will all be aware of that foreign viewers may not, is the very notable prevalence of suicides among K-pop “idols” and Korean Drama actors. While South Korea in general has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, it’s noteworthy how many of those who you’d think sit among the top social strata think suicide is preferable to continuing their lives. This journalist writes here that just on her own, she has reported on over 30 such suicides. One common factor is that the suicide often comes after a public scandal or in the lead up to one that seems imminent. If it seems impossible to avoid being outcast by their family and/or the public, many Koreans would apparently prefer death.

So: trigger warning for this film.

The titular “ballerina” is not the main character, but rather a famous dancer who’s facing an impending scandal. Her best friend, Ok-Joo, is a mysterious young woman whom she lost touch with when they were young classmates, but has since reconnected with. Ok-Joo’s job apparently has her living an isolated existence, travelling all over the world alongside some powerful people, as “protection”. And if you, like me, had an initial gut reaction that this might be another comically unrealistic ‘girl power’ type of feminist film, rest easy. This is not Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, where you’ve got willowy Cate Blanchett wearing a suit of chainmail that weighs as much as she does, swinging around a 20 lb. broadsword like she’s Chris Hemsworth just because “equality” apparently has allowed Lady Marian to break the laws of physics.

No magical bulletproof suits here.

We come to see that Ok-Joo is indeed very capable of protecting against any one at any time, and not because of plot armor. She’s a badass who uses knives, guns, knees and elbows, whatever is at hand to bring down a threat with extreme prejudice. The film doesn’t stick her in some preposterous situation like arm-wrestling (and winning) against a guy twice her size. She’s no so-called “Mary Sue”. She can be hurt, she can lose, but she is incredibly capable of dishing out pain to those who have it coming, making this a brutal and gratifying actioner that had me often thinking of The Raid.

Like most great films in the Revenge sub-genre, that “gratifying” and visceral aspect is a key factor here. Again, foreign audiences may not realize some narrative turns in this are not at all as exaggerated or unbelievable as they might seem. What we’re talking about is (Mild Spoiler Warning): Sex Trafficking, which is known to be a big problem in South Korea. The greatest number of victims come from surrounding countries like Mongolia or Vietnam, but forced sex work domestically is also a major issue, and the targeting of minors is of particular concern. Again, trigger warning: that plays a role in this film.

(Skip this paragraph to avoid Plot Spoilers)

The film is specifically referencing two major news stories. The first is a blackmail ring where girls were forced into sexual acts and put on camera for men to watch. Over 10,000 Korean men are known to have participated in this, gleefully so, specifically referring to the unwilling girls as “slaves” and reveling in it. The same setup and terminology is used in this film. The methodology the main character here employs though is referencing the “Burning Sun” case in Korea, where elites would meet girls in clubs, drug them, and then force them into sex. Like in this film, it was revealed that for years these stars and rich boys used their money and connections to avoid any repercussions, with police, judges, talent managers, and even cabinet ministers participating in an ongoing scheme of sexual violence and intimidation.

Actual memorial for Goo Hara, hit K-Pop starlet who faced sexual blackmail threats.

(End of Spoilers)

In short, a couple heightened moments aside: the horrific story in this film is all very grounded and, sadly, very real.

So even more so than in the previously mentioned films, Ok-Joo becomes an instrument of righteous vengeance against these kind scum, tying this more closely to films like I Spit On Your Grave, I Saw The Devil, or Lady Snowblood. Notably though, it’s not an Exploitation film, not actually using the female body as any kind of enticement or illicit thrill here. The ballerina is shown simply as a talented dancer, and only enough of Ok-Joo’s body is shown to believe her as a real threat. Actress Jun Jong-Seo, on a real run since her breakout in 2018’s Burning, is dressed in comfortable clothes, only form-fitting enough to throw a roundhouse kick. One scene in the film has her staring at her -possibly only?- nice, short dress, seemingly lamenting needing to wear it. She is us -Introverted, Pandemic Us- sunken into her apartment, comfortable on her couch, resistant to the idea of getting “girlied up” for a club. There is no Promising Young Woman type finale here.

Jong-Seo is likely the reason that cinephiles might give this one a chance, as she’s had a real star-making career in such a short time. Like Reeves in John Wick, her character is more about action than words, but she completely sells it, executing the action choreography with speed and skill that doesn’t require any blurry steadicam shots to make you feel the thrill of the fights. But that’s not to say this isn’t an emotional film, or there’s no traditional “acting” here. Jong-Seo has scenes where we can see why the ballerina was so important to her, see the little window of emotion it opened up, and she says a lot with her eyes.

The film as well is directed with a poetry and sense of emotion to it that belies many Hollywood action films. I do enjoy my Korean action movies, where there can be some terrible brutality, but also a real depth of feeling. This isn’t a film with Wahlberg or The Rock where there’s a need to crack jokes and smirk all the time to let audiences know this is safe, frivolous fun, simply a good popcorn accompaniment. This is a film that really captures the feel of Korea, the surreal vibes both good and bad. The comfort of your local convenience store. The glitz of a Hongdae club. The casual misogyny prevalent all around. The loving, devoted female friendships that often had foreigners questioning if most Korean women were lesbian (as if holding hands and touching hair all the time is too loving to be only friendship.)

Costume is Character. Neo-Noir lighting speaks louder than words.

Young writer/director Lee Chung-hyun has a bit of an auteur streak in him if I’m not mistaken. Possibly positioning himself somewhere in between a young Bong Joon-ho and a young Tarantino, he has here a visceral and thrilling story that peaks into Korea’s darkness, but allows for a gritty new female lead. He works with Cho Young-jik to capture some striking neon and rain-slicked cinematography, as well as with musician “Gray” to lay down a soundtrack to this that recalled for me Tarantino’s collaboration with The Rza. This is a film that has way too much personality and detail to it to be written off as ‘just another mediocre Netflix original’, which is what I fear people might think.

I have a few criticisms… a couple of action beats that were slightly much, a couple comic moments I’m not sure were wise, and I’m not sure the S+M community will appreciate the portrayal here… but they really pale in comparison to how many great little moments I loved in this. I love that they show how difficult it is to get a firearm in Korea, even if you’re “connected”. I love the true pick-up culture they show in Korea, which can sometimes be awkward as hell. I loved the way some edits are timed to the beats of the music, and the way some fights have almost a musical rhythm. And I loved how no-BS some scenes were, where Ok-Joo just has no patience for typical tropes like “let the scumbag villain lull you with manners and exposition”. I won’t spoil anything, but I literally cheered out loud many times during this film!

Ballerina is, I suspect, not going to make a big splash internationally. I’m guessing this will become a cult hit that takes years to get traction, something like Snowpiercer, but less recognizable since it’s all in Korean with all Korean actors. More akin to my beloved City of Violence, or The Man From Nowhere. This will next year be overshadowed by the John Wick spin-off of the same name, which to me now seems nearly dead-on-arrival. I have no desire to see a film with superpowered blind men and suits that protect you from falling off skyscrapers. I miss the grit and believability of the first John Wick film, and that’s what I got here. The big difference is that this isn’t just a revenge-thriller, but has so much heart to it, and so much to actually get pissed about. If only an Ok-Joo existed in real life.



Jeff Light

Physical nomad converted to digital; eating, drinking, reading, and tattooing my way around our little spinning rock. Medellín-based, find me on Letterboxd.