Fact: professional killers fall in love with their female targets, especially when said victims are cute, quirky, or somewhat lost in life. Chances at redemption abound. Thankfully, whilst not quite challenging these sacred cinematic truths, the offbeat “Kiss Me Kill Me” from Korean writer director Yang Jong Hyun does turn them on their head somewhat, with Kang Hye Jung (“Herb”) and Shin Hyun Jun (“Guns & Talks”) playing characters far more interesting and affecting than the usual gloomy but glamorous types.
Shin stars as veteran assassin Hyun Jun, an unsociable and quite confused man who lives with his alcoholic mother and rarely talks to anyone outside of his work or thinks about anything other than carrying out his next job. Everything changes when his latest target turns out to be a suicidal young woman called Jin Young (Kang) who is determined to end her life after being dumped. Intrigued and annoyed, Shin finds himself drawn into her life, not least since the two keep on running into each other in odd and inappropriate situations. Unfortunately, their burgeoning relationship is seriously tested when Jin Young runs into trouble after the thugs that she borrowed money from to pay for her murder come looking to collect.
Although the tale of a lonely and eccentric hitman falling for his target has been done on countless other occasions, the premise hasn’t reared its head nearly as often of late or since the subgenre’s heyday in the 1990s. As such, whilst undeniably familiar, “Kiss Me Kill Me” feels appealingly old school rather than unoriginal, and certainly provides the fix which fans of the form may have been craving for some time. Writer director Yang certainly shows himself to be aware of the standard formula, and works well within its boundaries, allowing his characters to drive the film rather than the plot itself.
This works well, with Hyun Jun and Jin Young being oddballs and not the usual kind of glossy, unconvincing figures who often populate this kind of film. As such, though the two are obtuse, given to strange and contrary behaviour, they are at the same time sympathetic, and are increasingly likeable as the film progresses. Their relationship develops in an amusingly awkward manner, with neither initially seeming to be keen on the other, and with Yang never suggesting that they are the answer to each other’s many problems in life. When they do inevitably begin to straighten themselves out and romance slowly blossoms, thanks to this investment in character the viewer actually roots for the couple and hopes that they will end up together and alive. The final act is tense rather than melodramatic, with it not being obviously predictable whether Hyun Jun will survive the inevitable last job when it comes up, and this actually makes the film genuinely moving.
The plot does have a few surprises along the way, and though it relies quite heavily upon coincidence, this fits in well with the film’s unconventional nature. The last act in particular throws in a few shocks along the way to its satisfying ending, and though the film ultimately conforms to type, it does so in pleasing fashion. The script itself is frequently very funny, and though the film keeps an admirably straight face for the most part, Yang’s deadpan approach still allows for some clever gags and unexpected laugh out loud moments. Suicide comedy and jokes about murder are hard to pull off without making characters pathetic or unlikeable, but the game performances from the two stars ensure that the film is never distasteful or too unbelievable. At the same time, the film is pretty dark and violent in places, shot mostly in the manner of a straight crime thriller, and it never shies away from the hard facts that Hyun Jun is a man who murders for money and that Jin Young genuinely wants to die.
By not patronising the viewer with sudden lunges for redemption or shifts into groan inducing romantic behaviour, “Kiss Me Kill Me” is far more gripping than it might otherwise have been. Largely driven by its characters and their engaging relationship, it works alternately as a thriller, romance and tale of modern angst, with Yang managing to balance and indeed combine these different elements into a quirky and thoroughly enjoyable piece of cinema.
Yang Jong-Hyun (director) / Yang Jong-Hyun (screenplay)
CAST: Choon-il Han, Jeon Hanssen, Mun-seok Jang, Hye-jeong Kang, Seong-oh Kim, Yeon-soo Kim, Chan-yeong Lee, Jin-woo Lee, Kwang-su Lee, Min-hee Lee, Seong-soo Oh