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Mothers and daughters everywhere can have fraught, tempestuous relationships, but South Korea’s Coin Locker Girl shows that dynamic being taken to a murderous extreme. A stylish, confident directorial debut for screenwriter Han Jun-hee (who wrote Kweon Ho-young‘s sci-fi mystery The Gifted Hands), this glowering crime thriller set in Incheon’s Chinatown district is powered mightily by the combustible performances of its two leads, major star Kim Hye-soo as a deadlier-than-the-male female mobster and rising ingénue Kim Ko-eun as an orphan she has reared to do her dirty work but who finally turns against her adopted mother. The film put a ton of coins ($9M after two weeks on release) in its locker after opening domestically in late April and could travel in the wake an international premiere in Cannes’ Critics Week.
A cold open kicks off with the two leads at the lowest ebb of their relationship, as II-young (Kim Ko-eun) lies injured and cornered, with a bloody knife held at her through throat by her adoptive mother (Kim Hye-soo), whom everyone calls “Mom” throughout.
The plot then loops back to 1996 when a newborn girl is found by a beggar in an Incheon subway coin locker. He names her Il-young, which means “10” in Korean, after the number of the locker she was found in. After this lousy start in life, things just keep getting worse for the foundling. By the time she’s eight and has spent all of her young life living among the homeless, she’s scooped up by a corrupt cop named Tak (Jo Bok-rae), shoved in a suitcase and delivered to his overlord, Mom.
This dead-eyed criminal queen bee — whose hair looks like a dried loofah and sports a shotgun splatter of freckles across her face — takes Il-young in, feeds her and trains her first in the art of organized begging and later loan sharking, forging identity cards, and assaulting debtors. Working alongside Il-young in Fagin-like Mom’s gang are an assortment of other kids: pink-haired druggie Ssong (Lee Soo-kyung), mentally challenged oddball Hong-joo (Cho Hyun-chul), and relatively stable Woo-gon (Um Tae-goo),while former Mom-protégé Chi-do (comedian Ko Gyung-Pyo) has broken off to run his own sideline business with Mom’s permission.
With her flair for maiming late-paying clients, Il-young looks set to take over be the Sonny Corleone to Mom’s Don eventually. However, she has an inexplicable change of heartlessness while on an assignment to collect payment from sweet Seok-hyun (Park Bo-gum), the son of a debtor who’s gone AWOL. When Seok-hyun shows her kindness by cooking her pasta (he wants to be a chef, now the universal signifier that a male character is in touch with his creative side and therefore a good guy) and taking her to a movie, she can’t bring herself to kill him on schedule.
Unfortunately, Mom takes an extremely dim view of her minions failing to follow her instructions to the letter, and soon Il-young finds herself not just banished from the ‘family’ but on her former gang-siblings’ hit list. In inimitable Korean crime film style, blood is spilt in a number of inventive, if somewhat sickening, ways.
Cinematographer Lee Chang-jae (White Night) and production designer Lee Mok-won collaborate closely to make the jewel tones of the sets look neon-bright and supersaturated, ensuring the garish Chinatown setting pops as brightly as possible. But the film’s most striking elements are its two lead actresses, who have great onscreen chemistry together. Kim Hye-soo (best known outside Korea perhaps for her roles in Tazza: The High Rollers and The Red Shoes) capably projects a kind of curdled maternal malevolence but with just a tiny dose of vulnerability, that’s echoed neatly by Kim Ko-eun’s similarly still poise, suggesting a bond that runs deeper between them than mere blood.
For the record, the film has also been titled China Town in some international markets.
Production companies: A CGV Arthouse presentation in association with Timewise Investment, Union Investment Partners, kth, ISU Venture Capital Co. Ltd, of a Pollux Pictures production
Cast: Kim Hye-soo, Kim Ko-eun, Park Bo-gum, Jo Bok-rae, Lee Soo-kyung, Cho Hyun-chul, Um Tae-goo,
Director/screenwriter: Han Jun-hee
Producers: Yoon Kyung-hwan, Kim Jung-sook
Executive producer: Simon Lee
Directors of photography: Lee Chang-jae
Editor: Shin Min-kyung
Production designer: Lee Mok-won
Costume designer: Choi Se-yeon
Music: Jang Young-gyu, Kim Sun
Sales: CJ Entertainment
No rating, 110 minutes
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