Il-yeong (played by Kim Go-eun) was abandoned in a coin locker as a newborn infant. Literally, her name just means "one-zero". After a somewhat unpleasant life as a normal child bum, Il-yeong is recruited and sold to Mom (played by Kim Hye-soo), who runs a multi-faceted criminal enterprise. As it happens, Il-yeong the child has the right stuff to be promoted as one of Mom's children- a direct enforcer who somewhat incidentally gets to have a normal dinner with the rest of Mom's "family" every once in awhile.
You've probably already guessed by this point that circumstance is going to turn Il-yeong against Mom. What distinguishes "Coin Locker Girl" from other such gritty crime narratives is how, especially by the end, the situation has taken a rather grim view. I don't mean grim in the sense that lots of violent stuff happens- that's pretty standard for the genre. Rather, the interesting hook in "Coin Locker Girl" is that Il-yeong starts off the disaster through a well-meaning but horribly short-sighted sentimental gesture.
That too, isn't necessarily particularly unique. But note the premise- Il-yeong, the girl who was discovered in a coin locker. How does a baby get stuck inside a coin locker? On the most base, unsentimental level, it's because her mother didn't have the heart to go through with an abortion, but also appreciated that she lacked the resources necessary to care for the child herself. So she just tossed Il-yeong away and hoped for the best. Consequently, that is how Il-yeong ended up becoming the adopted child to a criminal enterprise.
Therein lies the thematic resonance writer / director Han Jun-hee is going for- these kinds of disasters are cyclical. A parent can leave nothing of value to their child, but even without meaning to they can end up bequeathing an inheritance of pain and suffering. Just because the baby is in the coin locker doesn't mean that the baby is gone. Just because you leave the country doesn't mean there aren't consequences for welching. Just because you mean well doesn't mean things are actually going to work out. And so on, and so forth.
Even a late pregnancy test mainly serves to drive this point further home. There isn't really any such thing as a new beginning. Life just continues. The most unsettling part of Mom isn't that she runs a brutal criminal enterprise- it's that the woman has accepted that this is the best success she could have hoped for in life. From that end Il-yeong is forced to come to terms with the fact that even if she lived in a world with happy endings, this was the wrong battle to fight. The results are tragic- but Il-yeong will move on.
I don't want to oversell "Coin Locker Girl" too much. Until the better part of this theming kicked in, for me, this was just an above average gangland thriller. If that's all you want "Coin Locker Girl" will serve you well. But there really is a surprising bit of depth going on here as the film achieves the rather rare feat of making its criminal heroines come off more as tragic than cool. If there's any moral to be had here, it's simply this- don't be like these people.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Coin Locker Girl""
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