Kiss Me, Kill Me (South Korea, 2009)
Kiss Me, Kill Me is a comedy-thriller that revolves around the relationship between a professional killer and the woman who is meant to be his latest target, only for her to become the object of his affection. It’s an entry in a sub-genre that has been regularly explored in American independent cinema, with Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), The Matador (2005) and You Kill Me (2007), amongst others, already putting a darkly comedic spin on the enduring character of the professional assassin by having him encounter an unlikely friendship or a strangely accepting love interest. However, this South Korean production breathes some life into the formula, even if it mostly plays out as expected, regardless of its unusual asides. Quietly effective hitman Hyun-jun (Shin Hyeon-jun) arrives at the address of his assignment, which he thinks is to kill a businessman in his sleep, only to discover that the intended victim is actually Jin-young (Kang Hye-jung), a young woman who has ordered the hit on herself due to still being depressed from breaking up with her boyfriend seven years earlier. Jin-young has decided to ‘go out with a bang’, and contracted the professional after an attempt to throw herself in front of a moving train leaves her largely unscathed. Insisting that he is not a ‘suicide assistant’, Hyun-jun leaves her home. Yet he is intrigued by Jin-young and later returns to see her again, then deals with the loan shark who she borrowed money from in order to pay for her termination.
While there is certainly some black humour to be found in Kiss Me, Kill Me, it is less flippant in tone than its American equivalents, with writer-director Yang Jong-hyun rarely making light of the violence that occurs at regular intervals. Hyun-jun is a low-key operator who takes care of business without wisecracks and the kind of quirky behaviour that is often relied on as a means of making such anti-social assassin more endearing is absent in favour of silent introspection. The fight scenes are fairly brutal, with jittery editing and bloody stabbings, although these bursts of action are not too protracted as Yang’s main focus is on the burgeoning relationship between the main protagonists. Although the characters of Hyun-jun and Jin-young receive roughly equal screen time, the dilemmas of the former are often prioritised over the emotional state of the latter, which is a shame as the character of the conflicted killer is overly familiar, regardless of which national cinema he turns up in. Hyun-jun’s efforts to take care of his alcoholic mother add a rare domestic strand to the sub-genre, as the professional killer is rarely seen in a familial context, but his career crisis is less interesting than Jin-young’s extended bout of depression or her unpredictable demeanour. Alternately self-pitying and dangerously volatile, yet never unsympathetic, Jin-Young wanders around the city in her bathrobe and stumbles around an apartment littered with empty beer cans, representing the seemingly never-ending state that many urbanites find themselves in when suffering from heartbreak.
As this is a film about two lonely souls, the comedy clicks when they are together rather than when individually working or confronting an unconcerned ex-lover. Hyun-jun checks in on Jin-young because he is at a point where he needs someone to talk to, and has found a person who is perhaps even more isolated than he is. His initial courtship of Jin-young is amusing as both have forgotten how to ‘date’ and become gradually accustomed to one another’s company in bright public spaces, or in her apartment where she tries to make sense of why he refuses to complete the contract, or refund her money, yet keeps coming back to see how she is doing. The loan shark and his heavies are ultimately ridiculed as Hyun-jun has no problem dealing with such small-time enforcers, with threat to his chance of redemption predictably coming from his associates once he is seen to be losing his clinical edge. Shin exhibits the reserved intensity necessary to play a professional killer, but Kang is the stand-out. Previously seen in Park Chan-wook’s cult classic Oldboy (2003) and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s pan-Asian noir Invisible Waves (2006), she has a natural screen presence that makes her complicated character accessible in moments of suicidal impulse or when developing feelings for a man who kills for money. Kiss Me, Kill Me conforms to type a little too often, especially in the third act, but consistently entertains and occasionally surprises by adding some fresh elements to a rather tired set-up.