The Girl On A Bulldozer (Bulldozere Tan Sonyeo)
Korea (2022) Dir. Park Ri-Woong
One of life’s biggest ironies is how we reach certain ages that have us in a strange social limbo. As Alice Cooper succinctly put it in his classic hit I’m Eighteen from 1971: “I’m a boy and I’m a man” - in other words, we are legally adults once we turn 18 yet we are still treated as children by people we meet and by certain statutes.
19 year-old Gu Hye-yeong (Kim Hye-Yoon) is a tattooed, foul-mouthed, hot-tempered teenager who is fiercely protective of her younger brother Hye-jeok (Park Si-woo) but has had her fill of her feckless father Bon-jin (Park Hyuk-kwon). Bon-jin runs a Chinese restaurant but is still deep in debt. The day after Bon-jin renews his life insurance, he is involved in a car accident and left brain-dead.
Since Hye-yeong’s mother has passed away, she is now the one to take responsibility of the family affairs, with people are coming out of the woodwork to collect on Bon-jin’s debts that Hye-yeong knew nothing about. There is also a few lingering questions about the details of the car accident being an alleged suicide attempt Hye-young need answers to, which leads to the discovery of political corruption and some harsh realities about her father’s behaviour.
As far as Hye-yeong goes, Alice Cooper hit the nail on the head as she tries to navigate a society which expects her to behave one way whilst treating her in another. The Girl On A Bulldozer is a sympathetic debut from Park Ri-Woong burning with a simmering rage we’ve all felt as teenagers though I doubt any of us went as far as Hye-yeong does when the time bomb inside off eventually went off.
Park has other issues to explore although they tend to satisfy what I suppose are regular K-drama conventions, like the political corruption and dysfunctional family plots, which might make this feel like standard fare. The stifling of the patriarchal society towards women, another old favourite, is briefly present here too, but not an intrinsic issue for Hye-yeong to be concerned with, largely as she is a tomboy’s tomboy.
The film opens with a sullen Hye-yeong in court receiving a community work sentence for breaking up a fight in a shop (by hitting the bullies first), and is told she is eligible for jail now she is 19, pointing out she has previous. Naturally, the first thing Hye-yeong does afterwards is find the bullies and beats the snot out them, giving us a pretty good idea of who we are dealing with.
Interestingly, it is this same defiant, thickheaded attitude that serves Hye-yeong well in her never-ending fight for justice against her tormentors, of which there are many. Bon-jin is revealed as a man with a drink and gambling problem and has drawn many others into his web of deceit in trying to find a resolve. Ironically, in gathering information on the car accident, Hye-jeong exposes a lawful scam conducted by the lawyers of the so-called pedestrian victims.
Hye-jeong already seems to have adopted some of her father’s responsibilities, like the ready family finances, but isn’t told everything related to them, So when she returns to the restaurant from the hospital after seeing Bon-jin lying in a coma, she is perplexed to find two strangers measuring up the place for a refit. After chasing them off with a meat cleaver, Hye-jeong learns Bon-jin had indeed sold the restaurant to clear his debts but even this isn’t so simple.
Enter Chairman Choi (Oh Man Seok), wealthy business owner and political candidate who gave Bon-jin the lease for the restaurant building for as long as he liked – except Choi renews leases every two years, and Bon-jin made the mistake of being greedy with a second-floor extension he couldn’t repay. This starts to get a bit messy the more Bon-jin struggles to finance the payments via gambling and other loans as you might expect, all of which Hye-jeong is learning for the first time.
But instead of helping Hye-jeong out through compassion, Choi tells this gobby kid to do one which goes down as well as an apology from Boris Johnson with Hye-jeong. Choi is emblematic of the lofty end of a caste system which believes their affluence gives them ruling status over the lower classes who should know their place. Some do even resign themselves to staying in their lane, like Hye-jeong’s uncle, just to keep the peace.
Unfortunately for society, our tenacious protagonist isn’t one of them, and the stroppy girl we met at the beginning of the film is now a determined avenger we are all rooting for as she fights to protect her brother, her family name, and her rights as human being. And if you have already discerned that perhaps Hye-yeong’s revenge involves the titular bulldozer, you would be correct, but it comes to represent so much more.
Korea still seems to be behind the curve when it comes to portraying string female leads in crime dramas unless they are either psychologically damaged or stupidly sexy. Hye-jeong is a breath of fresh air being a regular teen not subject to the male gaze, helping Park make his point about how we expect too much from teens on the one hand, and not give them credit when they do step up on the other.
Whilst the script trips up in a few places – no way would a savvy girl like Hye-yeong not make a copy of incriminating evidence – the one constant is the performance from Kim Hye-Yoon in a star making turn. Featured in almost every scene bar flashbacks, Kim gets right into the character and intuitively knows when go hard or to show Hye-yeong’s emotional side, but never goes overboard with either.
The Girl On A Bulldozer is a strong, assuredly directed debut from Park, and despite the few safe plot beats, you’ll find a stirring social drama and compelling character study to get involved with here.