Coin Locker Girl (Cha-i-na-ta-un)

Korea (2015) Dir. Han Jun-hee

Making his directorial debut, Han Jun-hee use a grim and violent story to illustrate a notable change in modern South Korea – to wit: women are starting to challenge the long-standing patriarchal society, no longer content with being mere supporting players.

Abandoned as a baby in a coin locker at a train station Il-Young (Kim Soo-Ahn) grows up among the beggars at the station until she is found by a corrupt cop Tak (Jo Bok-Rae) and taken to a loan shark known as Mum (Kim Hye-Soo) who also runs a number of other criminal activities including people/organ trafficking. Il-young is soon put to work begging along with other kids, but when they are abandoned, she, along with Ssong (Park Ji-So), defy Mum to return to her employ.

Ten years later and Il-Young (Kim Go-Eun) is now a hardened teen and part of Mum’s family, along with party girl junkie Ssong (Lee Soo-Kyung), tough guy Woo-Gon (Um Tae-Goo) and mentally slow Hong-Ju (Cho Hyun-Chul). Il-Young is sent to collect money owed by a client from his son Park Seok-Hyun (Park Bo-Gum), an eager and polite chef whose amiable manner surprises and impresses Il-Young that she forgoes the usual beatings administered, incurring the wrath of Mum.  

Since the turn of the millennium Korea has established itself as the masters of the grisly crime thriller with a simple blueprint that is actually rather difficult to duplicate without being senselessly brutal and gratuitously offensive. It’s admittedly a fine line to straddle but somehow Korean filmmakers have managed this with many groundbreaking classic to their credit.

Han Jun-hee has clearly studied these films with an analytical eye in order to make Coin Locker Girl a film that slips nicely into with the crime thriller catalogue without embarrassing itself yet with a sense of style and flair of its own. Having female leads in roles traditionally given to men is the key selling point of this film and works well in creating a fresh dynamic to what is ultimately a rather by the numbers plot.

If we are being honest the “dedicated gang member finds love and breaks away from their criminal connections” story is hardly original and one can figure out the direction this tale takes. By choosing to go with female leads the emotional aspect of the boss/underling relationship has a different aura about it, arguably a more tacit and nurtured one in contrast to the testosterone-fuelled bonds of the males.

Yet in the ironically named Mum, we have a woman who is cold, distant, steely and arguably the least likely woman to display any maternal instincts towards anyone, demonstrated by her routine exploitation of young children, unflinchingly dumping them when they usefulness expires. Somehow though Mum is able to command respect and loyalty from her people, an influence which extends to the law when trouble brews.

Having grown up around violence and shady deals, Il-Young is almost a “Mum-lite” in terms of getting results without a single flicker of remorse, while her femininity is hidden behind a boyish haircut, a swagger in her walk and a foul mouth. The first sign that there is a young girl behind this intense façade reveals itself when Seok-Hyun cheerfully invites her in and offers her some food, apologising for the lack of payment.

Because the roles have been reversed Seok-Hyun is the naïve counterpart to the hardened criminal right down to the hopeless belief his father will return from the Philippines with the money, which Il-Young knows right away won’t happen. The fact he is a chef is another blatant cliché ported over into this role reversal – aren’t all the girls the hard men fall for in these films also very domesticated?

Whilst this works very well as a central gimmick if you will, Han has also backed himself into a corner in terms of how far to take the main elements of the story and develop them without falling into the traps of convention which he sadly does. In other words, having become smitten with Seok-Hyun, Il-Young buys herself a bright floral dress to signify her late entry into the world of love and femininity when she could just have easily kept her tomboy image but still be have a softer heart.

Han also overloads the film with many subplots which see a number of outside forces involved in the story whose allegiances flip flop as per the whim of the author, to show how ruthless the criminal world is. This prevents major plot points, such as Mum and Il-Young’s bond and the relationship between Il-Young and Seok-Hyun, to develop at a natural pace to establish a deeper emotional connection before the inevitable implosion occurs.

The shortcomings of the ambitious script are compensated by the impressive visuals and panache of the camerawork, with Han taking his cues from both Korean and Japanese cinema. The final showdown between Il-Young and Mum has a Takeshi Kitano vibe about it. The action scenes may be at a premium but the violence is as swift as it is gory and viscerally unsettling.

Proof that good performances can enhance a flawed script, the two principals here are both superb, essentially the driving force of the whole film. Noted for her glamorous and vampy roles Kim Hye-Soo plays against type as the grey haired, no make-up, chain-smoking ruthless Mum yet still smoulders on screen with her commanding presence. Up and comer Kim Go-Eun as Il-Young faces the challenge of carrying a film head on, acquitting herself admirably, while showing great promise for the future.   

It is rare to get everything right in their debut so Han Jun-Hee can hold his head high regarding Coin Locker Girl with an eye to improving in the future. Fans of Korean crime thrillers should find plenty to engage them with this assured and slickly made outing as all the constituent elements are present and correct for an entertaining romp.

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