Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운) – ★★★☆☆

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운)

Coin Locker Girl (차이나타운)

Abandoned by her biological mother in a coin locker in Seoul, a baby girl is discovered by a passing vagabond and brought up on the streets by the homeless community. Named ‘Il-yeong’ after the number ’10’ compartment in which she was discovered, the youngster shows remarkable resilience to her situation, a trait which proves useful when a corrupt cop abducts and sells her to a criminal organisation headed by sinister matriarch Mama (Kim Hye-soo (김혜수). Years later, Il-yeong (Kim Go-eun (김고은) has grown to become an enforcer and debt-collector for the organisation based in the seedy underbelly of Chinatown. Yet when Il-yeong is forced to collect a payment from kind-hearted Seok-hyeon she becomes conflicted, leading to a violently catastrophic showdown with those she has come to regard as family.

In Chinatown, Il-yeong collects debts for criminal matriach 'mom'

In Chinatown, Il-yeong collects debts for criminal matriarch ‘Mom’

Visually attractive and featuring a mesmerising performance by Kim Hye-soo, Coin Locker Girl – or the more pertinent Korean title Chinatown – is a narratively lacking yet impressive directorial debut by Han Jun-hee.

Director Han wonderfully employs colour to startling effect throughout the crime drama, utilising stunning shades of green in conveying the eerie, mysterious, and threatening world dominated by intense mob boss Mom, yet he also keeps the film grounded through the use of monotone shades of brown in conveying the drab existence his protagonists lead. In conjunction with skewed camera angles that generate surreal intensity, Coin Locker Girl is quite the stylised urban fable. The film is also a particularly refreshing break from the overabundance of testosterone in cinema, featuring two strong central females leads who are more than capable of emerging victorious over their male counterparts.

Where Coin Locker Girl falters however is primarily due to the weak narrative. While competent, and certainly a big step up from director Han’s writing duties on disappointing thriller Gifted Hands, the crime drama simply lacks the impetus required to make the events compelling. The film is often referred to as ‘A Bittersweet Life with women’ due to the very similar narrative structure, yet whereas director Kim Ji-woon spent time developing his central character’s foibles and making him someone audiences could emotionally invest in, the same cannot be said for Il-yeong’s trajectory due to a host of logic lapses and superfluous scenes involving underdeveloped supporting roles, a rival gang, as well as contrived motivations designed purely for plot progression. Il-yeong’s story, while interesting, doesn’t resonate as it should and as such ironically villainess Mama steals the limelight.

Mom is an intense, deadly force to be reckoned with

Mama is an intense, deadly force to be reckoned with

As underworld matriarch Mama, Kim Hye-soo is fascinating. Her transformative performance is easily a career highlight for the venerated actress, who exchanges the feminine glamour for which she is renown for a dowdy, masculine charisma with ease. Combined with her often disturbingly intense stares and danger-filled silences, Kim is wholly believable as a ruthless Chinatown kingpin. Every time Mama appears onscreen she dominates the proceedings, providing sorely needed suspense and compulsion to the narrative and is by far the most intriguing character within the film.

Kim Go-eun, however, has been completely miscast as gang enforcer/debt collector Il-yeong. While she is undoubtedly a charismatic actress, as exemplified in A Muse, Kim’s perfectly white and unblemished face in conjunction with her waif-like physique simply don’t convey the required gravitas the role requires and stands in stark contrast to the efforts employed by Kim Hye-soo. Though not a fault of her making, Kim Go-eun – as well as love interest Park Bo-geum – also falls victim to the oddities within the script and while she performs admirably, it’s difficult to emotionally invest in her journey.

Narrative peculiarities also particularly effect the supporting cast. Jo Bok-rae (C’est Si Bon) is criminally underused as corrupt cop Tak and he, along with the other male roles, seem to be present purely to engage in violent scenes that ironically tend to force Il-yeong to the sidelines. As adopted sister Song, Lee Soo-kyeong is present merely to be attractive although a scene in which she stabs herself in the arm with heroin, rather than injecting it into her veins, is quite laughable and destroys sympathy for the wayward antagonist. As the supporting roles are so underdeveloped, it is always a relief when Mama returns to the screen for she is the driving force behind Coin Locker Girl and the reason it’s an engaging viewing experience.

Il-yeong begins her quest for revenge

Il-yeong begins her quest for revenge

Verdict:

Coin Locker Girl is a visually impressive debut by writer/direcor Han Jun-jee, who employs striking colours and skewed camera angles to generate the intensity of the criminal underworld in Chinatown. Narratively however the crime drama is weak, yet the film is saved by a fascinatingly transformative performance by Kim Hye-soo who brings palpable gravitas to the role and provides the necessary compulsion to make Coin Locker Girl an entertaining effort.

★★★☆☆

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The Thieves (도둑들) – ★★★☆☆

The Thieves (도둑들)

The Thieves (도둑들)

Following a spectacularly daring art heist, criminal Popie (Lee Jeong-jae (이정재) and his band of thieves – Yenicall (Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현), Jampano (Kim Soo-hyeon (김수현) and Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook (김해숙) – have too much heat on them to operate in Korea for the foreseeable future. Yet as luck would have it, a job offer in Macau arises from master thief and former associate Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석). Joined by safecracker Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo (김혜수), the gang join forces with a team of Chinese bandits to steal a $20 million diamond named  ‘The Tear of the Sun.’ Yet Macao’s plans to sell the diamond back to owner and ruthless mobster Wei Hong, as well as the alternative agendas of everyone within the team, results in a crime caper that goes anything but smoothly.

The team gathers to prepare for their latest heist - to steal 'The Tear of the Sun' from a mob boss

The team gathers to prepare for their latest heist – to steal ‘The Tear of the Sun’ from a mob boss

When The Thieves was released back in the summer of 2012, it rapidly became a cinematic phenomenon. Within its opening weekend the film had grossed over 2 million admissions; on its ninth day, The Thieves became the most attended Korean film of the 2012 before beating that record four days later by becoming the top selling film of the year. 22 days after release the crime caper joined the elite ’10 million admissions’ club, before passing 12 million 11 days later. At the end of its theatrical run The Thieves had taken almost $83 million at the Korean box office, as well as becoming the second most attended film in Korean history at the time. The success and popularity were unprecedented, yet that aside, is it any good?

The Thieves is a noble effort at producing an entertaining all-star international crime caper. Writer/director Choi Dong-hoon has established himself as a success within the genre for quite some time with The Big Swindle and Tazza: The High Rollers, however The Thieves marks an altogether different, more Hollywood-esque, approach for the filmmaker and it’s one that has paid enormous dividends to his career. The pleasure of witnessing some of the Korean industry’s biggest stars interacting and attempting to outwit each other in exotic locations is particularly enjoyable, often – and especially the case for 12 million domestic viewers – taking attention away from the frustratingly convoluted narrative. Juggling such an inordinate amount of actors is an impressive feat and director Choi does his very best to give every character a history and motivation, some of which works well amongst an array of superfluous tangents, and while occasionally entertaining it also serves to create periods where precious little actually occurs as well as to make The Thieves acutely overly long.

Safecracker Pepse and thief Popie make a play for the diamond

Safecracker Pepse and thief Popie make a play for the diamond

One of the reasons attributed to the success of The Thieves is the presence of Jeon Ji-hyeon and her flirtatious relationship with heartthrob Kim Soo-hyeon (indeed, their chemistry together later translated into incredibly lucrative TV drama You Came From the Stars). While the crime caper is a great comeback vehicle for Jeon, who has clearly been selected to bring sex appeal both on and off screen, her and Kim Soo-hyeon appear rather sporadically throughout. Instead, it is Kim Hye-soo who steals the limelight in terms of both beauty and allure as well as in forming the emotional centre of the film. Her appearances within the film are magnetic and amongst all the betrayals and double-dealings that arise, her steadfast character provides a stabilising core that is sorely needed. Ultimately however the simply excessive amount of characters weighs the story down, and The Thieves would have benefited from jettisoning several of them – particularly the Chinese criminals, who bring little to the story – and developing the core team instead.

Yet The Thieves really hits its stride in the wonderfully kinetic final act, where all the various parties involved in the diamond heist collide with extreme effect. The acrobatic wire-work battles and blazing stand-offs with criminals brandishing automatic weapons are impressive, and are consistently highly entertaining, silly, fun. It’s pure popcorn cinema, and director Choi does an excellent job in constructing an enjoyable finale while still keeping to the spirit of Korean crime caper.

Flexible wire work thief Yenicall brings deceptive sex appeal

Flexible wire work thief Yenicall brings deceptive sex appeal

Verdict:

The Thieves is an entertaining crime caper, and a real pleasure to witness some of the best stars in Korea go head-to-head in ‘winner take all’ race to the finish. Director Choi Dong-hoon juggles the excessive cast well throughout the convoluted narrative, yet tedium does occasionally appear during the overly long running time. The Thieves is pure popcorn cinema, and consistently entertaining, silly, fun.

★★★☆☆

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