It's very easy to be judgmental to other people for failing to be perfect. One thing that judgmental people tend to not realize is that most of time no one actually cares about their opinions. That's what life is like for Yeon (played by Son Yeo-eun). Her husband Sang-pil (played by Lee Young-hoon) can beg her for money. Her husband's loan shark Jae-gon (played by Jung Wook-I) can take a more violent tact. But as far as Yeon's concerned, none of that is her problem as long as she can keep her son Geon-ho (played by Jung Woo-jin) safe. Even if the method Yeon manages is, well, less than perfect.
One of the things I like about Yeon is that she's very motivated. Yeon sees a problem, she tries to get out of it. Yeon isn't one of those helpless movie heroines who's completely incapable of defending herself just because a man enters the room. And yet she also isn't a very self-consciously defined strong female character archetype who solves problems effortlessly. Yeon's technique is low-tech, and designed for the short term. It's designed to minimize the extent she has to care.
It's an interesting contrast to Sang-pil's general naiveté. Sang-pil isn't a bad person so much as he is kind of dumb. Sang-pil and Yeon got married under good intentions, but they were clearly unprepared for the single most crushing problem of married life- money. Sang-pil's previous line of work might have been dangerous, but they discovered too late that Sang-pil didn't have any kind of transferable work related skills.
The result is a story that emphasizes the stupidity of its characters while pointing out that they're not exactly in a position to do much better. Even Jae-gon appears to have gotten to a higher station of life by sheer dumb luck- the man lives in a high rise hotel. One would think that a man who makes his living by brutalizing people for poor financial decisions would have a better sense of self-awareness.
No, the self-awareness bit goes to Geon-ho, who spends most of his screentime in imaginationland. Not the best choice but again, there's not really any better ones available. Yeon's first priority has to be to prevent Geon-ho from being traumatized or used as leverage. In this sense she succeeds. Success being a relative term, of course.
"Coin Locker" is for the most part just a standard disquieting story about financial troubles where violence becomes, when necessary, an important sticking point. At first glance nothing seems that remarkable about the story- but that's precisely the point. None of the characters really understand that they're in a story. Jae-gon does seem to think of himself as the winner in life who should get everything because he deserves it, but Sang-il and Yeon don't particularly care about that.
Even the ending, which seems designed to finish a character arc, doesn't really. "Coin Locker" just isn't that complicated a story. These characters don't act according to a psychological profile- they do whatever seems like the best idea at any given moment. Is that redemption? Not really- survival is the better word for it. And that's all Yeon feels as she walks away from the wreckage. Obligation is just something you do- you shouldn't have to ask for it twice.
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""
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