Coin Locker Girl / Chinatown 차이나타운 (2015) Review: Prada and the Bride make a Noir Movie!

Coin Locker Girl / Chinatown 차이나타 (2015) Review: 

Prada and the Bride make a Noir Movie!

Hello. This is Prof. AKIA with a new hot right off the presses Korean Movie starring veteran actress and former bombshell “Kim Hye-Soo / 김혜수 “ and relative newcomer actress “Kim Go-Eun/김고. This movie is “Coin Locker Girl” in English and “Chinatown” in Korean… mm….

Well I guess the movie title “Chinatown” had already been taken in English.
You know that little movie starring a not well known actor.
What was his name…?
Jack Nicklaus?
It was Jack something…
Yep, Jack Nicholson

The Crime noir genre is the Korean movie genre that is most well-known to the outside world. Examples would be “OldBoy” (2003) and “I Saw the Devil” (2010). What may be somewhat ironic is that the Korean Crime noir genre is not really that Korean!

“OldBoy” (2003)

“I Saw the Devil” (2010)

What I mean is that it does not really reflect the nature of Korea as it is that much. There is no authenticity there. In practice, the worlds in Korean Crime noir movies feels like a hybrid between Japanese crime movies and Old Hong Kong crime movies with a touch of Hollywood crime movies.

The result is that Korean Crime noir genre movies can be as alien as sci-fi movies to Koreans. In some ways, this may actually help separate these movies from its culture making them more commercial to audiences outside of the culture.  However, that is another story for another time.

This characteristic can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.   On one hand, there is a lot of flexibility to what one can do and the resulting movie feels somewhat ageless since it is not tied to any real life elements. On the other hand, because it is not tied to real life, it can easily lose any social context which is one of the primary themes of a crime movie. Thus, it can easily feel shallow.

Just think how much movies like “The Godfather” (1972) and “Goodfellas” (1990) gain from their connections to the times they were set in.

“The Godfather” (1972) 
“Goodfellas” (1990)

Coin Locker Girl / Chinatown 차이나타(2015) as a Korean noir film has this short coming. This story can be told totally separate from its context. It could be set in a fantasy kingdom and you would not lose that much. Actually, I think I’ve seen some movies that did basically the story of this movie in those settings. It fits rather well as there is something Shakespearean to the basic story.

And I’ll just refer to this movie as “Coin Locker Girl” from now on.

And to be frank, Coin Locker Girl” (2015) is a far better name for this movie. Korean movies have a bad habit of naming movies according to places which do not really have as much impact on the movie as they think they do.

In other words, they do not really get the point of the movie they are making!
But that is Korea for you…
Missing Points

Back to the plot.

The Plot
The basic framework of the plot follows the extremely cliché story of an orphan getting taken in by a criminal organization / family. That orphan then grows up as a member of that criminal organization / family who then veers into tragedy when that orphan meets someone.

Hormones fly all over the place!

This leads to a collision between the orphan and the adopted family and we have the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy.

You know the story!
You have seen this in a hundred movies.

In Coin Locker Girl” (2015), there is not much drastic change to this basic story. The orphan is a 19 or 20 year old Korean girl who was abandoned right after birth in a Coin Locker at a subway station giving us the movie’s title. She is sold to this criminal family of indeterminate size and strength headed by an older woman named “Mama” located in the Chinatown of Korea. The movie does not really bother with actually showing much of the criminal world.

So, you do not have to also!

The only real changes to the basic story are that you have a gender swap among main characters from male to female and that the setting is Chinatown of

Oh and also, the orphan’s age was dropped to 19 or 20 year old!

I’ll talk about that one later.

Gender swapping
Over the last decade and a half or so, there has been a trend of female characters coopting formerly male character stories to varying degrees of success. Sometimes these movies end up exploring something new and thus adding to the richness of the basic story. Other times, it is just a money grab to bring in formerly neglected female audiences by superficially empowering them.

The gender swap in “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) is somewhat in the middle because it does introduce something new by making the core relationship a “pseudo mother and daughter” one rather than the well worn “Father/son” one. In addition, this is a gender swap from both angles. Even previous gender swap movies with similar plots in different genres touched more on the “pseudo father and daughter” relationships. This meant only swapping from a single angle.

For example, Supernatural Fantasy movies such as “Blood and Chocolate” (2007) and “Underworld” (2003) follows the basic plot framework used by “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) also. The fact that the former two have the female character be a Werewolf and a Vampire is rather irrelevant. The two were about the “pseudo father and daughter” relationship just in the context of a supernatural criminal family.

“Coin Locker Girl” (2015) is different in this regard. However, in execution, this is not explored in detail because “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) is rather a superficial movie in regards to its genre. There is not subtext or social message. There is not even a commentary on crime in general. The movie chose to just be about the characters on a rather melodramatic journey to a tragic end. It is more a story about emotions and sentimentality.

This means that, other than the byproduct of the characters being female, there is no intentional attempt to explore this relationship other than the obvious.

This is the same for the setting of Chinatown.

Race, Crime, and Korea
The Chinese are spread all around the world to the degree that Koreans cannot even match and we are everywhere.  Korea has had a decent Chinese population for at least a century now who were discriminated against. This is somewhat of a not bad setting for a noir movie.

All of the mafia movies are set in discriminated Italian communities after all.

I say “somewhat” because the Chinese here in Korea were more like the merchant oriented Jewish in America rather than the labor oriented Italians in America. This means that what we could call China towns here are far less slum like.

However, this does not matter as the Chinese/immigrate element has utterly no impact on the movie. In fact, I am not sure that any of the characters in the movie are actually Chinese. There are only about two lines of Chinese spoken in this movie and even that is just in passing. The only thing that actually even refers to this movie being set in China town is about 2 scenes with a street sign. That is all!

Oh and the characters seems to order Chinese take out a lot!

However, that does not mean anything. Does ordering pizzas a lot mean that you are in the Italian mafia? Also Chinese food in Korea is as Chinese as American Chinese food is Chinese. Why would any self-respectful Chinese criminals eat that?

It is like Corleones’ ordering from Dominos.
I don’t even think the Sopranos would order Domino’s Pizzas.

This is just one example of the shallowness of the movie.

What is “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) about?
I call this movie a mix between the female character dynamic of “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) and the plot of “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004) without the impressive action.

Just think about it!

“The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)

Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004)

If you remove all the action from the Kill Bill movies, it is just about crime family member, the bride, escaping and hooking up with a civilian who is then murdered by her former crime family. So, after a series of revenges, the bride ends up at the door of “Bill” and both parties know the final confrontation is inevitable.   

This is basically the plot of “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) also.

Where  “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) comes into play is with the character dynamics. Contrary to “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004) which had a more “Scorned Lovers” relationship dynamic, “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) has a somewhat “boss/pseudo mother and daughter” relationship between an older woman and a younger female girl. The reason why I refer to  “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) is because this relationship is not overt and lovey dovey.

Mama is the head of a Crime organization after all.

What is interesting about “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) in this area is that, on paper, there is no reason for this relationship to be a “pseudo mother and daughter” one. You could basically turn both parties into men and have to not change a single line of dialogue. The uniqueness of the relationship comes from the casting and the performances.

The Ladies’ Performances
On the pages of the script, there is nothing really special about “Coin Locker Girl” (2015). It is your cliché crime noir movie. What elevates the material is mostly the performances of the two female lead actresses on the foundation of some decent directing.

As the protagonist, you have “Kim Go-Eun/김고 age 24 who played the kid in the movie “Monster/몬스터(2014). In this movie, her role is of the silent protagonist that you can easily find in a noir movie. In fact, I do not think she has more than 5 minutes of dialogue in the whole movie. However, without words, she does do an interesting job of portraying a kid who has only known about the life fate has given her. At the same time, she is a teenager who hungers for affection wherever she can get it. I do not know if she has range as an actress but she has much promise.

The antagonist “Ma Ma” is “Kim Hye-Soo / 김혜수 who is trying to make a change in her career from sexy bombshell to more maternal roles. In other words, she is trying to do a Julianne Moore. This is a welcome change as Kim Hye-Soo had been doing basically the same thing since “Tazza: The High Rollers” (2006) about 8 years ago.  

In “Coin Locker Girl” (2015), Kim Hye-Soo is doing a somewhat softer and less crazy version of “Ma Ma” from the “Dredd “(2012) which was played by Lena Headey of Game of thrones fame. She gives us a quite decent performance although I think it is about 5% short of perfect. She does not have the maternal angled totally nailed at the present. There is still some sign of her previous acting style which I think it is more because the actual material is thin than her lack of effort.

These two actually have decent chemistry and is basically the only interesting character dynamic that arises above the typical clichés that this movie has to offer.

The Shortcomings
This is where the material let’s down the performances. Cliché does not need to mean thin. You can still do a lot with what “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) has got. However, with this movie, there is just a setup and a series of escalating events. In a lot of ways, it is structured more like an action movie rather than a noir movie. However, there is barely any action in the movie other a few knife fights which are not something you are going to phone home about.

What I mean is that the events of the movie are rather compressed and feel rushed through. You have the protagonist being introduced and suddenly everything is escalating towards the end tragedy without proper motivational development. The protagonist being basically a teenager does help to justify thing escalation a little but not totally. It does not help that the love interest who incites everything is basically a “dick” and our protagonist just knew him for a day.

I actually was glade for his fate!

Another thing that let’s down the movie is that the protagonist rather passively bumbling through the movie almost up to the end. Unlike “The Bride”, our protagonist doesn’t really earn the ending she gets. The character lacks a certain degree of agency you would expect from this type of movie. As a result, the seriousness of the tragedy gets somewhat watered down.

The Conclusion
“Coin Locker Girl” (2015) is a noir movie. However, is it a good “noir” movie with the emphasis on the genre? This is somewhat of a complex question to answer. On an objective scale, “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) is not a particularly outstanding or even innovative in terms of its noir movie elements. In fact, the movie is filled with cliché and does not have anything to say about the nature of crime and such.

However, not being a good noir movie does not necessarily perfectly equate to being a bad movie.  “Coin Locker Girl” (2015) is a noir movie that is filled with clichés but tries to do a single thing differently. By this, I mean the lead actresses’ relationship.  And this is what elevated the movie from being your bargain bin movie.

The performances of the lead actresses are the reason to see this movie. While the roles they have are not deep in terms of what is typed on paper, the two actresses manage to bring more out of the material.

And I think that this is worth a lot. It does help that the director seems to put a lot of effort into the cinematography and editing. There is not much I would of asked from the director other than fixing the lackluster soundtrack selection.

I give “Coin Locker Girl / Chinatown 차이나타(2015) a solid B. It is like your beginners noir movie with more soapy melodrama.

Score: B or 6.75/10
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