South Korean crime thrillers are a dime a dozen in the country but, to the best of my knowledge, ones with women in the lead are seemingly few and far between. With the exception of films like the My Wife is a Gangster series, Bong Joon-ho‘s Mother and Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, crime films historically in and outside of South Korea almost always exist in a masculine world and tell male stories which is perhaps why Coin Locker Girl, the debut feature from writer-director Han Jun-hee, comes across as a refreshing anomaly in a genre that’s normally dominated by men.
In Coin Locker Girl, we are introduced to Il-young, a young woman who as a baby was abandoned in a coin locker. As a child, we see her grow up homeless and without a parent until one day the elusive “Mother” accepts the young girl into her criminal syndicate. Mother never fails to remind Il-young that she is disposable the second she shows insubordination and with that weight hanging on her shoulders, the film fast forwards years later, where we see a hardened Il-young mature into one of Mother’s debt collectors. She does her job very well but after a failed collection involving a boy who she soon falls for, Il-young becomes the source of Mother’s rage.
Though dressed as a gangster crime thriller, Coin Locker Girl is in essence a coming-of-age story, one that uses tropes from the genre and manages to adjust them within a gritty criminal world. Ostensibly, Coin Locker Girl is about a young girl who learns to grow independent and wants to be her own person but can’t because her mother refuses for her to be happy. It’s in this reappropriation of familiar ideas that Coin Locker Girl becomes an amusing watch at times and it’s these parts of the film which feel quite strong.
Further enabling this thought is the stellar lead performance from actress Kim Go-eun who does a fantastic job of being a hardened warrior and a vulnerable teenager. Often times it’s easy to tell when people are merely playing tough, especially in Coin Locker Girl where the temptation to overact can be quite high, but there is no affectation with Kim’s performance in the film. At only 24, the rising star is absolutely someone that Korean film fans ought to look out for and pay attention to.
The same cannot be said however for the rest of the film which fast becomes a disappointingly generic crime film; one that doesn’t lend too much weight outside of its coming-of-age reading. The plotting of Coin Locker Girl feels all too familiar as it borrows cues from better Korean crime films such as The Man From Nowhere, New World or A Bittersweet Life. Everything leading up to the ending feels forcibly rushed and is nowhere near as involving as what had preceded it as writer-director Han begins unnecessarily killing off characters without giving much of a reason for their deaths. It’s almost as if to say that Han couldn’t see how the film was going to end and gave into just finishing the script as soon as he could.
While the setting of Incheon’s Chinatown does add another layer to the film’s appeal – especially on a visual level where hues of green and red especially become prominent in defining Mother’s home – there isn’t much else noteworthy to point out about the fairly pedestrian Coin Locker Girl. It’s a film that has its heart in the right place and does a commendable job of not only drawing a great performance from its leading actress but also being brave enough to try to diversify and add variety within the very crowded landscape of Korean crime thrillers. Coin Locker Girl is certainly a welcoming addition to that crowded field despite it’s samey narrative beats and if anything, makes Han Jun-hee as a filmmaker to keep a close eye on. That goes double for actress Kim Go-eun.