January 26, 2016 – 4:49 am

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Running a business is really tough on the family, especially when you are a loan shark with organ and human trafficking on the side. It’s inevitable that blood will be spilt to keep everyone in line in Han Jun-hee’s Coin Locker Girl (2014). Stephen Tan reviews.

Compared to the violence in Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy (2003) or Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil (2010), Han Jun-hee’s Coin Locker Girl (2014) is comparatively “mild”. It may be glossy grit but the emotions driving the film are pretty raw.

Newborn baby Il-young was abandoned inside a coin locker in a Seoul train station. Found and brought up by one of the Seoul’s homeless people, she was later given to loan shark boss, Mother, when she was seven. Even at that young age, Il-young has shown a tenacity to survive. Abandoned (again) along the highway after serving her brief usefulness to Mother, Il-young slowly makes her way back to Mother in Chinatown.

Now 18, Il-young is a recognised member of Mother’s immediate family, which includes adoptees Ssong (who turns to drugs when Il-young is not watching her); the slow Hong-joo and general henchman Woo-gon. Il-young is tasked with chasing and collecting from those who default in paying back their dues to Mother. Failure to pay means another victim for Mother’s organ trafficking operation.

Il-young is sent to collect the loan from Seok-hyun’s father. And since Seok-hyun’s father is not at home, Il-young has to keep an eye on Seok-hyun. Before long, Il-young finds herself drawn to the young chef, probably more because of his kindness and his sense of hope and decency - something which is totally alien from what she sees in her own environment, which is governed by power, fear and death.

Seok-hyun’s father goes missing and Il-young is told to take out Seok-hyun’s eyes for re-sale. Probably for the first time in her life, Il-young is horrified at the idea and tries to help Seok-hyun escape, even to the extent of bashing Hong-joo. However, Mother has anticipated her move. Seok-hyun is stopped and has his throat slashed; and Il-young is drugged and sent to Japan (as part of human trafficking).

However, she manages to escape by damaging one of gangster Chi-do’s eyes. Chi-do offers an attractive reward to rotten cop Tak to kill Il-young while Mother warns everyone not to touch Il-young. On the run, Il-young tries to meet Ssong but finds an unhinged Hong-joo instead. Hong-joo is angry that Il-young had tried to kill him earlier but Woo-gon shows up to protect Il-young. Woo-gon kills Hong-joo after the latter stabs him in the neck. Woo-gon dies and, in the meanwhile, Ssong also dies after she shoots herself up with drugs and cuts her wrist.

Il-young confronts Mother thinking that the latter only wants her dead. Mother does not deny the accusation and does not even resist when Il-young stabs her. Given the choice to walk away from it all, Il-young decides to take over the family business.

When it comes to family “business”, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather easily comes to mind. From the way the family does its business and enforces its own code of honour; to the death of the matriarch (in this case) and the reluctant child who eventually takes over.

While Michael Corleone’s true baptism into the family takes place when he guns down Sollozzo, Il-young’s realisation probably took place the minute she is told to take out Seok-hyun’s eyes. The family cannot be slack in exacting its dues, there is no mercy and there are no extensions.

What happens next is the story of a young girl, who has been indifferent to her “victims”, realising that the business really involves her family members - people close to her get hurt and die - and that for her to live, she has to kill the one person that meant the most to her.

While there are no such things as regrets in her world, one can only imagine why Mother offers herself to Il-young. Also, is it a case of the past happening again? She had killed her own mother and the end shows Il-young making the same prayer and offerings, which Mother had done in the past.

To his credit, director Han Jun-hee has clearly not played up the violence in the film. That is why when Mother slashes Seok-hyun’s throat, the impact was so great because it was so unexpected. Again, when his men turned on Chi-do. The scene might recall Caesar’s assassination but there is no defying Mother.

Veteran actress Kim Hye-soo won a best actress award for her role as the stoic but world weary Mother though the movie really belongs to Kim Go-eun as Il-young. Kim shot to fame in Jung Ji-woo’s A Muse (2012) - about a 70-year-old poet falling in love with a high-school girl - but her growth in Coin Locker Girl matches Al Pacino’s from “not so innocent” to taking over the household - it is quite awesome for the young actress who was 21 or 22 when she made the film.

That the debut film from the new director (Han Jun-hee was a former assistant director and a script writer) was selected for Cannes only meant Han is a filmmaker to look out for.

On a side note, Coin Locker Girl is ideal trainspotting fare for anyone into Korean TV dramas:

- Kim Go-eun is currently in Cheese In The Trap. Her slightly befuddled college student Hong Seol is as far away as possible from Il-young, which only goes to show how talented she is. In Coin Locker Girl, it’s almost like watching Han Groo in Girl K (2011).
- Veteran actress Kim Hye-soo rocked the house in The Thieves (2012) but most TV fans will remember her as the no-nonsense Miss Kim in the 2013 comedy, Queen Of The Office. Kim Hye-soo is currently seen as a detective in Signal (a Korean variation on Freqency).
- Park Bo-gum (Seok-hyun) had a good run as a serial killer in Hello Monster (2015) and had just come off the successful 2015/16 series, Reply 1988 (aka Answer Me 1988).
- Go Kyung-pyo (Chi-do) helped to make 2014’s Naeil’s Cantabile enjoyable and he did a good job in Reply 1988.
- Lee Soo-kyung’s Ssong might be the “damsel in distress” in Coin Locker Girl but she was quite hilarious as the other twin in Ho-Goo’s Love (2015).

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