Commanding performances from Kim Hye Soo and Kim Go Eun power the bloody and heartbreaking 2015 film Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운/Chinatown). The stylish crime-noir is wrought with pulpy action, but well-balanced with an unexpected bit of heart and emotion.
Il Young (Kim Go Eun) is found as a newborn in an Incheon subway station locker. After a couple of years growing up with the other homeless subway dwellers, she is taken in by a corrupt cop to the head of a loan shark operation known only as Mother (Kim Hye Soo). Mother grooms her alongside other children by trafficking them through begging for money in the streets. And when Il Young is old enough, Mother sends her to take care of debtors who fail to pay.
But one day, Il Young is sent to collect from Seok Hyun (Park Bo Gum), the son of a now-AWOL father who took out the loan. The nice, cheery and eternally positive Seok Hyun tries to befriend Il Young. And despite her resistance to the friendly advances, the more time she spends with him, the more she begins to realize that there may be a brighter future for her outside of the hopeless darkness she’s been living in all her life.
Mother, however, senses the change in Il Young bubbling to the surface and acts to stop it before it boils over.
The film is set in the dark, rundown alleys of Incheon’s Chinatown. The mob boss-like Mother runs a smooth operation involving loans, fake identities and human trafficking. Helping her aside from Il Young are quiet, but strong Woo Gon (Um Tae Goo), pink-haired druggie Ssong (Lee Soo Kyung) and intellectually disabled Hong Joo (Cho Hyun Chul). Together, they form what they call a family. Having meals together when they’re not running the sordid family business. One of Mother’s former children, Chi Do (Go Kyung Pyo), now even runs his own operation and often partners with her on mutually beneficial jobs.
But at the heart of Coin Locker Girl is the story of the title character. Il Young, named after the locker number she was found in (10), is exposed to the harsh realities of life early on. This dark, rundown world is the only world she’s known all her life. But the brightness of Seok Hyun begins to open her eyes to the world outside. She slowly realizes and soon longs for a way out. A way out of the blood-stained darkness and a way to leave the suffocating arms of Mother.
The dynamic between Mother and Il Young is incredibly captivating. Kim Hye Soo and Kim Go Eun’s powerful performances give the film an amazing heft and elevates what may otherwise be familiar territory.
Scarier and firmer than any mob boss, male or female, Kim Hye Soo is so menacing and threatening as Mother. And she does so with as little words as possible. It is a mesmerizing performance from an experienced veteran. And it requires a fair bit of nuance that allows for a wholly satisfying series of events.
The chemistry she shares with Kim Go Eun also helps elevate the material. Especially in the film’s most climactic moments.
Kim Go Eun gives an equally captivating performance. It is breathtaking to watch Il Young’s journey from murderous lackey to hopeful dreamer to vengeful and angry. She is the heart of the film. And it’s not a spoiler to say that she experiences many a heartbreak throughout. Kim Go Eun’s ability to connect with the audience with such material is a masterful accomplishment for such a young actress.
The ensemble cast also provides excellent support to the film. Notably, Park Bo Gum is a cheery contrast to the gloom. His presence as Seok Hyun brings about the profound change in Il Young. Or at least, he helps give Il Young a path out of the darkness. And Park Bo Gum’s personality and talent is perfect for the role.
Uhm Tae Goo, Lee Soo Kyung and Cho Hyun Chul each have their moments to shine in the film as well. But Go Kyung Pyo is a scene-stealer as Chi Do. The versatile actor goes toe-to-toe with Kim Hye Soo in two of the film’s most memorable moments. And it’s a testament to his versatility that he never misses a beat.
Careful, stylish cinematography emphasize the dark, hopeless nature of the world Il Young lives in. And those apt directorial choices match the screenplay’s narrative and emotional twists and turns.
Coin Locker Girl does feature a fair amount of blood. But the emotional journey and legitimate surprises help balance what is a thoroughly engaging film.