Perhaps the real locker is family.
A teenage girl is lying in pain on the floor. A blood-splattered older woman stands above her, holding a bloody knife and placing it near the girl’s neck. The woman is her mother…or as close to a mother as she ever had. So…what happened to make the woman want to kill her own daughter?
Record scratch…you’re probably wondering how they got here…
Well, the woman is and is not the girl’s mother. The girl’s birth mother had abandoned her in a coin locker in a subway station. A beggar heard the crying newborn and introduced her to the community of station beggars. They named her Il-young…or 1-0, after the number of the locker. The beggars raised her, sort of, until she was around seven or so. During a police roundup, a detective with gambling debts named Tak kidnaps her and takes her to a photo studio in Incheon’s Chinatown.
The photo studio is really a front for providing Chinese immigrants with fake identity papers as well as providing illegal loans to whomever, which is sometimes followed up with illegal organ donation depending on the outcome of the loan. This operation is run by a woman called Ma, and some of the low-level tasks are done by children around Il-young’s age. Seeing Il-young’s defiant glare and the bitemark on Tak’s arm, Ma says that he has brought trouble. Still, Ma accepts Il-young as payment for some of his debt and puts her to work.
Along with placing Ma’s business cards everywhere, the kids are tasked with begging on the subway. On the van ride home, the men force some of the kids out one by one every few miles. While some of the kids cry, Il-young stays stoic. She finds another abandoned girl named Ssong, and they walk all the way back to the Ma’s place. Ssong faints at the door when Ma’s underling opens it, but Il-young stays standing and stares at Ma, who has not stopped eating her dinner and simply tells her underling to order more noodles.
That night, or early in the morning, Ma leads Il-young outside. She brings Il-young to a badly wounded dog and kills the dog with a shovel. Alluding to Il-young helping Ssong, Ma mocks her for staring instead of rescuing the dog. She then says that she will kill Il-young too if she becomes useless.
Years pass and Il-young is nearing her twenties. We first see her entering a gambling den and reminding one of the gambler’s that his payment is due. He spits in a cigarette-filled ashtray hits her in the face with it. After picking up the ashtray to spit some blood in it, she repeats the requests for payment. When he threatens to hit her some more, Il-young pulls out her phone and calls up her partner, who is with the man’s wife and child. He gets a lot more cooperative after that. She lowers some of the debt by helping him win some money at the table. But as payment for the ashtray incident, she makes him stuff a tiny bottle in his mouth and then she smacks him the head with the ashtray.
The next day, Il-young takes some money back to the photo studio and we see the remainder of her kid cohort. Ssong has remained kind of a girly-girl when she is not getting high and violent. There is Hong-ju, who has some mental issues and needs medicine in order for him to stay calm and clear. And there is Woo-gon, who is rather quiet and standoffish, though he is kind of nice to Il-young. Oh…and apparently, Ma’s full name is Ma Wuhee. Il-young had not known that.
That evening, they have dinner with one of Ma’s associates called Uncle and talk about a…client named Park Gitae. Apparently, he is late on his payments and has fled to the Philippines. Woo-gon does not believe that Park would rip them off with his son still within their clutches. Just in case, Ma assigns Il-young to confront his son, Park Suk-hyun.
The next day, Il-young drives to the apartment of Park Suk-hyun, with the full intention of threatening him with a knife. However she is thrown by his casually friendly attitude and apparent ignorance about the level of trouble that he is in due to his father’s debt. He insists on cooking pasta for her before giving her the money. As she is eating, he notices the scar on her face and tries to put cream on it. Il-young gets angry and storms out before collecting any money.
When Ma calls later that day, Il-young tells her that he was not home. But Ma has other business. Ssong is causing trouble at a club. Il-young goes to the club to fetch Ssong, who has gotten high and is assaulting another woman. Il-young, waiting for Ssong to finish up until she gets impatient and finishes the job herself.
Il-young tries taking Ssong out of the club, but not before the club owner confronts her. It is Chido, a former member of the kids cohort who left to run his own business. While he still has some working relationship of sorts with Ma, he and Il-young do not get along, particularly when it comes to giving drugs to Ssong. Chido claims that Ssong asked him for it. Brother or not, Il-young threatens to kill him if he does it again.
The next day, Il-young returns to Suk-hyun’s apartment and gives him a call. He does not answer, so she breaks in and…does not do anything because he returns her call from the restaurant where he works. He reserves a seat for her and cooks a meal for her. Instead of giving her the money, takes her out to a movie. Afterwards, they go for drinks and Suk-hyun talks about how he grew up poor and with the dream of becoming a chef. In the end, she doesn’t get the money this time either, being called away while Suk-hyun is passed out. Is he giving her the runaround?
Meanwhile, Chido and a couple of his goons go to pick up boxes of cash from Ma. He is not particularly respectful to her, let alone filial in his manner, calling her old and laughing as he talks about Uncle Tak’s gambling debts. Ma tries to remain stoic, but Chido keeps pushing until the transaction is over.
Later, Il-young approaches Ma as she is going off to pay respects to her own mother, holding an umbrella over her. Il-young never thought about Ma having her own mother, which amuses Ma. Ma is even more amused when Il-young says that Ma’s mother must have been good to her, responding only by saying that she killed her mother and wants to be alone.
Unbeknownst to Il-young, Hong-ju and Woo-gon had gotten into it with three Chinese men who owed Ma money. Regardless of whether the two had originally come to collect money or corpses, the three men are set to be organ donors.
Il-young returns home to find a phone message from Suk-hyun asking if she had returned safely. She also finds Ssong sleeping in her bed. Ssong seems to have picked up that her “little sister” has been acting strange lately, and asks what is going on. When Il-young does not answer, Ssong suggests that they go to Uncle’s for some fish cakes, which…may or may not be a euphemism for something. In any case, Il-young is not having it and tells Ssong to sleep in her own bed.
Ssong takes Il-young clothes shopping the next day, getting her a dress that Il-young is a little self-conscious about wearing. Walking home, Il-young notices a flight deal to France, which reminds her of Suk-hyun’s talking about becoming a chef. She gets Ssong to take some passport photos for her. But what for? For going to France?
While that is going on, Woo-gon goes to Suk-hyun’s restaurant and outright threatens him about the payment in front of the other employees.
That night, Ma tells Il-young than Park Gitae has disappeared. Thus, it is up to her and Hong-ju to kill Suk-hyun and dispose of anything that the doctor does not take. Now, Il-young has to make a decision. Will she kill Suk-hyun for the sins of his father or incur the wrath of her mother?
When I first heard of this movie, I thought that it would be just another story of a sexy-cool girl gangster. I was wrong. To be sure, it fits pretty well within the world of South Korean gangster tearjerkers and much of the above may seem like a standard gangster story. It is…to a point. Instead of it just being about the gangster world being about Korean society, this frames the story in Chinatown, making it within a community of cultural outsiders. Okay, yeah, a lot of South Korean crime movies involve Chinatown or Chinese Koreans, but not necessarily this blatantly. I am not sure if they are meant to be Chinese Chinese (yes, I know that there are dozens of minority groups in China) or ethnic Koreans who are just more comfortable speaking Chinese than Korean, but it does not really matter in the context of the story; the greater society considers them to be Chinese. The original Korean title is actually Chinatown.
Ill-young grew up there along with a group of other abandoned children. I think that it was an interesting decision to make both the protagonist and the main boss female. The movie did not fetishize either character (okay, Ssong may kind of been, but not to the extent that one might expect from this kind of film) and had them act fairly similar to how a male character would act. I don’t know if that is an admirable thing or simply due to male writer-director Han Jun-hee not really having personal insights into that. To be fair, that is not entirely the case. Il-young is not simply some swaggering “tomboy” and, there is one particular scene towards the end that would have probably been directed a whole lot differently even with the same dialogue if she were meant to be. Anyways, their being female was tied to sometimes not taken as seriously and having to compensate…violently. It also helped to emphasize the point that this movie is about a family…and about family in general. The most important building block of society.
Ma…which sounds like mother in both Chinese and Korean, treated her young workers both as adults and as children. As a result, they grew up too fast while simultaneously remaining childlike even as they started to enter adulthood. Il-young, tough and stoic as a child, grew up remaining tough and stoic, though loyal to Ma. She did not really grow up so much as she literally became physically larger. Ma even says at one point that she keeps Il-young around because she…stays young. This parental take on the crime boss-minion dynamic not really unique to this film; A Bittersweet Life did something similar ten years earlier. And, of course, the “family business” is present in most stories about criminal organizations. Still, driving home the mother-daughter aspect is an interesting wrinkle.
It is the introduction of Suk-hyun that throws Il-young, causes her to make mistakes, and makes her hide things from her mother. Is it because she falling in love? Is it because she cannot understand Suk-hyun’s sort of offhand kindness? Is it because he seems to represent another world for her? It is all unclear. Maybe Il-young herself does not know. Far from being the cool kickass gangster chick that I thought she would be, she is highly vulnerable and confused. While that cuts down on some of the action, it does make for a more interesting character drama for me.
In any case, Il-young’s behavior exposes the cracks in her supposed family. The family was dysfunctional enough already without her falling for a boy and not doing what mother told her to do. Basically, the story is not just about a person realizing the stifling nature of a cutthroat business, but someone struggling with growing up. The movie presses this metaphor pretty hard at points…well, to the point to where it is no longer metaphor.
One thing that I had in the back of my mind was how children in South Korea (and a few other Asian cultures) do not often leave their parents unless they get married off. In a sense, all of these children were probably expected to stay and be loyal. To that effect, Chido was the first black sheep. He broke from Ma and went off to do his own thing. When they interact, he is disrespectful and she is cold. That said, she did give him permission to go off on his own…sort of. Whether or not he went behind her back to do anything, it is all acceptable, if not fine. Il-young messed up repeatedly and tried to hide it. And, despite Chido being a terrible person, he seems the most stable of the bunch. Il-young’s antics served to expose how messed up she and her fellow adult children have become. How will they deal with the outside world? How will they deal with their mother? And what will mother do? They are so concerned about failing mother that the concept of their mother having failed them does not enter the picture. The mother who had rescued them from a short life as beggars could possibly have failed them? And what of Suk-hyun? He lived his life as best as he could. He did everything right. It didn’t matter. It was his own father who failed him, abandoned him, and effectively let him die. Confucianism supposedly frowns upon authorities who fail to live up to their status, but what do their subordinates do when that failure has immediate consequences for which they are wholly unprepared?
A familiar story with a few nice twists. I quite enjoyed this one.
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