South Korean film “Coin Locker Girl”, which was released in South Korea as “China Town” a couple of weeks ago and will soon be shown at the upcoming Cannes International Film Festival, applies one fresh setting on its genre conventions. Although the movie is essentially a typical South Korean crime noir film, the story looks different while being more interesting thanks to its atypical premise, and it is supported well by two good performances functioning as a compelling emotional center to hold our attention amid its grim, violent mood.
Right from when she was born, Il-yeong (Kim Go-eun, who was wonderful as a teenager girl who becomes an object of desire and inspiration for the artist hero in “A Muse” (2012)), had no one to take care of her. Not long after her birth, her mother abandoned her in one of the coin rockers in the Incheon subway station, and she was found by a bunch of beggars living in the station. After several years of growing up among the beggars who raised her, she was taken to Mom (Kim Hye-soo) along with a number of homeless kids, and they soon began to work for Mom’s crime organization which is mainly operated in the Chinatown area of Incheon.
Another several years have passed, and Mom is still a powerful crime boss in her area while Il-yeong and others remain to be under her command. Their main business is handling illegal immigrants from China, but they are also involved in loansharking business, and Mom does not hesitate at all whenever it looks like something should be done to some of her pathetic debtors. Although she may look like a mere grown-up tomboy, Il-yeong can be both tough and ruthless as Mom’s top lieutenant, and she is surely not someone you can mess with, as reflected by one violent scene where a rude debtor makes a fatal mistake of underestimating her. In case of hopeless debtors beyond the possibility of redemption, Woo-gon (Eom Tae-goo), Hong-joo (Cho Hyun-chul), and other gang members make it sure that these debtors pay off their debts through a merciless measure, and we see how they do their grisly job swiftly as ordered by their boss.
Il-yeong, Woo-gon, Hong-joo, and Song (Lee Soo-kyeong) are more or less than Mom’s loyal children in her organization, and they and Mom come to us as a sort of alternative criminal family. As your typical elusive crime boss, Mom seldom lets others around her know what she feels or thinks behind her steely façade, but it is clear that she is a woman who has probably survived for many years through her strength and will. It can be said that Mom sees a lot of herself from Il-yeong, but Mom remains aloof even when she shares a private moment with Il-yeong, who also has her own private feelings but would rather keep them to herself.
On one day, Il-yeong visits an apartment belonging to one of Mom’s long-time debtors, and that is how she happens to encounter Seok-hyeon (Park Bo-geom), the debtor’s young son who has no idea on what kind of serious trouble his father put him into. Their first encounter is not ended well, but it seems Seok-hyeon’s innocent decency touches somewhere inside the tarnished heart of Il-yeong, who has never experienced such warm, direct kindness like that in her whole life. Diligently working as a cook in some fancy restaurant, Seok-hyeon is always hopeful and optimistic despite his difficult daily life, and Il-yeong begins to show her gentler sides as she gets to know a bit more about him.
Not so surprisingly, there eventually comes a heartless moment of harsh reality for both of them, and that leads to a conflict which is going to shake up the world of Mom and Il-yeong and others. After making a certain choice at the crucial point, Il-yeong soon finds herself running away from Mom and other shady denizens of her underworld including vile ex-cop Tak (Jo Bok-rae), and Mom is ready for whatever she should do in her position – and whatever will happen as a consequence in the end.
This is the first feature film made by the director/writer Han Jun-hee, who did a competent job of handling story and characters while giving some notable stylish touches to his debut work. There is always that grey, melancholic sense of fatality surrounding the characters on the screen, and the seedy sides of their lowlife environment feel palpable and authentic in every scene. While it is melodramatic as expected, the movie is relatively more restrained in its dry, gritty presentation of violence, and the complex emotional relationship between its two heroines makes the film look quite distinctive compared with many recent South Korean crime noir films usually centered on male characters.
As the center of the film, Kim Hye-soo and Kim Go-eun ably carry their movie in their effective performances complementing each other. While Kim Hye-soo has a juicier role in comparison, Kim Go-eun is also dependable as a young resilient woman who comes to rebel against her mentor/mother figure for survival, and the movie is always more engaging whenever these two talented actresses interact with each other on the screen. Most of the supporting performers in the film are also cast well in their respective roles, and the special mention must go to young actor Kim Soo-An, who holds her own place as young Il-yeong during the prologue part.
“Coin Locker Girl” is not entirely without flaws, and some of them are glaring at times. Seok-hyeon is more like a plot device than a character, and the same thing can be said about a number of functional supporting characters in the film. Although the narrative pace is maintained well, the plot is less satisfying at several points while leaving some blanks to be filled, and I have a feeling that the movie could have done more with its interesting characters. In spite of such imperfections, “Coin Locker Girl” is still an entertaining variation of familiar genre conventions, and it does feel like a fresh air breathed into its genre. In its mean world, anyone must be tough to survive, and it surely shows that ladies can be as tough and interesting as guys.