Director: Han Jun-Hee
Writer: Han Jun-Hee
Cast: Kim Hye-Soo, Kim Go-Eun, Um Tae-Goo, Park Bo-Gum, Ko Gyung-Pyo, Lee Soo-Kyung, Cho Hyun-Chul, Jo Bok-Rae, Lee Dae-Yeon, Jung Suk-Yong, Baek Soo-Jang
Running Time: 110 min.
By Paul Bramhall
As anyone who’s seen any number of Korean gangster movies will know, rarely are they complete without a scene in a basement carpark, a setting which never fails to lend itself to knife wielding figures of the underworld partaking in varying degrees of bloodshed. To that end, Coin Locker Girl jumps straight into the thick of things, as proceedings open with a character already sprawled on the floor of a basement carpark, a knife wielding assailant standing over them as blood drips off the freshly used blade. Had it been any other gangster movie, the scene would probably come across as remarkably familiar, however what sets this scene apart from those that have gone before it, is that both characters are women.
The women in question are played by an almost unrecognizable Kim Hye-soo, and newcomer on the block Kim Go-eun. Hye-soo, known for her roles in the likes of Kick the Moon, and Choi Dong-hoon’s Tazza: The High Rollers and The Thieves, here has her beauty hidden under some very effective aged make-up, a shock of grey hair, and some frumpy body padding. Go-eun on the other hand effectively portrays a young adult, one whose life has been moulded and controlled by influences that are only looking out for their own interests. After being severely miscast in Memories of the Sword, made the same year, her role here shows the same level of talent that initially brought her to the attention of critics and audiences alike, in 2012’s A Muse.
The opening scene with the pair is a refreshing sight in a genre that’s overcrowded with masculinity, and is no doubt thanks to first time director Han Jun-hee, here working from her own script. The female leads aren’t the only aspect of Coin Locker Girl that gives it a distinct feel of its own. As the Korean title suggests, the setting is in Incheon’s small cluster of streets that make up what became Korea’s first Chinatown. With so many Korean movies limited to taking place either in Seoul, or in one of the provincial small towns, it makes for a welcome change to be immersed in the distinctly different streets of Chinatown. It’s immediately noticeable that the buildings have both Chinese language signage as well as Korean, and the gritty dockside location and gloomy whether set up a suitably brooding atmosphere.
The plot of Coin Locker Girl focuses on the tale of a new born baby discovered in a train station coin locker by a homeless man. Seven years later, during a routine clear up of the many homeless people residing in the station, a heavily in debt corrupt detective notices the young child amongst the sea of down and out faces, and makes the decision to sell her off to the loan shark (Hye-soo) he’s indebted to. Fast forward a decade, and the girl (Go-eun) has become part of the loan sharks ‘family’, having become suitably effective at debt collecting. However when one of the debtors she’s sent after turns out to be a kind hearted young man, saddled with his father’s debts who’s escaped to the Philippines, she finds herself unable to go through with the grim ending that most who can’t pay up meet with. When her adopted mother gets wind of the indiscretion, it sets off a trail of bloody violence and revenge.
On paper, the synopsis for Coin Locker Girl may sound like a female take of Kim Jee-woon’s seminal classic A Bittersweet Life, however this would be to dismiss Jun-hee’s debut too easily. While the similarities are undeniably there, A Bittersweet Life cast its focus mainly through the unspoken feelings between Lee Byung-hun’s enforcer and Sin Min-ah’s gangsters moll, while Coin Locker Girl chooses to focus on the dynamics of the relationship between Go-eun and Hye-soo. There’s a running theme throughout Coin Locker Girl, which has Hye-soo bringing up which of her ‘family’ members are still useful, and which have become useless. Initially, Go-eun’s only real goal in life seems to be to remain useful to her adopted Mum, however as the plot progresses, the dynamic is interestingly switched, until it gets to a point were Hye-soo directs her own question at herself.
The journey that Coin Locker Girl takes us on, while never anything less than engaging, is a decidedly dark and grim one. At the end of 110 minutes, there’s not many people left breathing, and many of them have met decidedly painful deaths. The relentlessly dark tone will definitely not appeal to everyone, and Jun-hee’s decision to play things poker faced throughout make some of the events that unfold an unforgiving experience for the viewer. While movies like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance tackle similar dark themes and grim scenarios, director Park Chan-wook injected his production with some blacker than black humor, which popped up in the most unexpected scenes. Coin Locker Girl could probably have benefitted from a similar deft touch, to lighten proceedings just slightly, however for a directorial debut, this is a minor quibble.
If any aspect of Coin Locker Girl really sticks out like a sore thumb, it would have to be Park Bo-geom’s performance. The young actor plays the son of a businessman who is heavily in debt to Hye-soo, and is apparently working in the Philippines to pay it off. Hye-soo tracks down the address of Bo-geom, and sends Go-eun to collect. However instead of making a run for it, upon arriving at the apartment, he cheerfully invites her in, and is soon cooking up a pasta dish so that she can have something to eat. The intention is obviously to provide a contrast to the cold harsh world Go-eun usually resides in, next to the world of someone that genuinely cares and takes an interest in her life. In fairness to Bo-geom, his overly cheerful demeanour is not the only issue, as the script also goes a little too far. One scene has Go-eun desperately begging him to run away, but all he seems to care about is that her shoelace is undone, even going so far as to bend down and tie it. Scenes such as this only result in taking the viewer out of the movie.
Despite Bo-geom’s character more closely resembling a glowing ray of sunshine than an actual human, his role is integral to the plot, and the consequences of Go-eun’s brief insight into how life could be are both swift and brutal. Indeed in contrast to Bo-geom, Hye-soo’s character of Mom (a term which she’s referred to by everyone) is remarkably detached and cruel, so much so that it’s difficult to relate to what her intentions and motivations could be. Not only is she a loan shark, but she also dabbles in fake ID’s for Chinese immigrants, with an organ trafficking business on the side. The concept of debtors paying what they owe with their organs has been used before in Korean cinema, most notably in Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, however here it feels particularly nasty and cruel. While we’re given vague hints at Hye-soo’s past, the script stops short of providing us with enough to connect the dots entirely, and as a result even a last act moment of redemption seems questionable against the backdrop of cruelty which has gone before it.
While the motivations of her character remain murky, both Hye-soo and Go-eun’s performances effectively embody the nature of the roles they’re playing, and as is often the case with Korean gangster flicks, the ending doesn’t back down from showing the consequences of their actions. Far from being a bloodbath in the style of A Bittersweet Life or Man in High Heels though, the expected confrontation between the pair is surprisingly low key, a risky decision, but one which perfectly works considering the context in which it’s taking place in.
Despite the familiar plot, Coin Locker Girl marks itself as an impressive debut from Han Jun-hee, thanks in no small part to the performances of its leads. It’s been a long time since there’s been a female-centric gangster movie out of Korea, with the last installment of the My Wife is a Gangster trilogy already a decade old, so many would consider it long overdue. Jun-hee is definitely a talent to keep an eye on, and no doubt fans of the gangster genre will walk away satisfied, which in a genre that’s already overcrowded, should be considered no mean feat.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10