[REVIEW]: Chinatown (2015)

Greetings, it’s been ages since I’ve greeted you all with a film review, so I figured I’d take on the challenge of watching a few movies in the upcoming weeks. I don’t want to overwhelm myself, as I’m still watching dramas, but film reviews are a lot easier and quicker to write. So, I think a four week movie challenge might be a good place to start. I put a poll up on twitter a few weeks back with four different film choices, and Chinatown (aka. Coin Locker Girl) came out on top. I’ll be reviewing the others as well in accordance with poll’s results, so keep your eyes peeled for those. Now, let’s get to the film!

[Be ForewarnedSpoilers Below].


Synopsis:

A newborn is abandoned in a Seoul subway station coin locker. A beggar finds and takes care of the child until she is later kidnapped by a corrupt cop (Jo Bok Rae), and sold in order to pay off part of his debts. The mob matriarch (Kim Hye Soo) raises the child, who is named Il-Young (Kim Go Eun), which means “#10”; the number of the locker she was discarded in as a baby. Il-Young is groomed by the female mob boss, whom everyone refers to as ‘Mother,’ in order to carry out various gruesome tasks for the family business. Though Mother operates a fake ID service for Chinese Immigrants, she’s primarily involved in conducting a lone shark and organ trafficking ring in Incheon’s Chinatown. Other children in the artificial family include a reserved Gon (Uhm Tae Goo), mentally disabled Hong Joo (Jo Hyun Chul), drug addict Ssong (Lee Soo Kyung), and lastly, a haughty Chi Do (Go Kyung Pyo) who runs an independent side business with permission from Mother.

One day, Il-Young is assigned by Mother to collect the remaining debt from Suk Hyun (Park Bo Gum), the son of a borrower. Il-Young is caught off guard by his optimistic and kind demeanor. After developing subtle feelings for him over the course of a few days, Mother commands Il-Young to kill the son, since his father has fled the country. Il-Young cannot bring herself to complete the task, and is forced to escape instead. Her decision to break away from the household ultimately results in a grisly unraveling and demolishment of the pseudo-family.


Review:

This was an unexpectedly mild film considering the genre and content. Although it was dark and violent in nature, there was never a point where it felt wild, or off the tracks so to speak. The story unfolded in a tranquil manner, and remained consistently smooth throughout its runtime. There was angst, and there was grit—but somehow, these moments, along with the pacing, never felt reckless or unrestrained. The mood was almost mellow, regardless of the fact that death, knives, and blood all made frequent appearances. While there was nothing innovative about this film in terms of revenge narratives, the coming-of-age lens succeeded in adding a unique element to the story. Also surprising, but appreciated, was the use of a female centered approach, contrary the usually male dominated gangster film.

Kim Hye Soo’s ‘Mother’ was rather mysterious and my only regret was that we never quite get enough of Mother’s past to piece the whole story together. We know she killed her own mother, but why? Did her mother put her in the same predicament she has put Il-young and the other children through? What motivated her to conduct the lone shark and organ trafficking ring? The film ends with Mother’s subtle attempt at redemption. Despite her ghastly behavior for majority of the film, there’s something vulnerable about the way she uses her last words to tell Il-Young to smile, whilst desperately placing the locker key in Il-Young’s hand. Left in Il-Young’s locker are official adoption papers. Mother had officially adopted Il-Young before her death, and it appears as though she hasn’t done this with any of the other children. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the woman. As cruel as she may have been, there were several scenes that revealed her softer side, and underlying love for Il-Young, even if it was convoluted in nature.

An actor who pleasantly surprised me was Go Kyung Pyo, who played the scumbag, Chi Do. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Kyung Pyo in my time, most of which consist of eleven Chicago Typewriter episodes where he plays a genuinely nice guy. Safe to say this was a drastically different role, and I was quite impressed with his effectiveness in this small but considerable stint. Though he had minimal screen time, Kyung Pyo was able to make an impact with his potent and chilling performance.  Uhm Tae Goo was another member with minimum screen time, but I rather enjoyed his performance and character. I empathized with Gon—who—behind the rough appearance, seemed to have a gentleness about him, and a soft spot for Il-Young. You could tell that he genuinely cared for her, and it came through loud and clear in his actions.

An act that felt a tad underwhelming for me was put on by Park Bo Gum. In his defense, he had to play a warmhearted innocent among a group of evildoers, however, I think the execution was a bit flawed. Because everyone around him was so entirely vicious, he had to walk a fine line between, just enough or too much, in regards to the ‘nice guy’ act. In this case, I think he crossed the threshold of too much, and his character ended up being unrealistic. His facial expressions and tone were slightly exaggerated, which was off putting. The script shares some of this blame, because you’d never find a young man in real life who’d bend down to tie the shoe of a female loan shark, who just frantically revealed she’s been sent by her mother to kill him. The behavior was not only inappropriate, but illogical. He also refuses to believe his dad has fled despite Il-Young’s insistence and the blatantly obvious evidence cluing us in that he has.

Lastly, I must give credit to Jo Hyun Chul, who played the mentally handicapped Hong Joo. As someone who has a mentally disabled family member, I always enjoy seeing the disabled represented on screen, because it’s not often, especially in Korean media. Furthermore, it is not easy to play a mentally challenged character on screen, but I found Hyun Chul’s performance to be authentic and believable. Sadly, Hong Joo isn’t what I’d deem a heroic character, but he was still an intriguing one none the less. There’s no doubt that his mental disability contributed to his ultimately confused and violent attack on Il-Young and Gon, but it was tragic to see him transform so alarmingly.  However, Hong Joo was perhaps the most troubled of all the group, in that, Mother’s “stay useful or I’ll dispose of you” threat had much more meaning to someone who was already disadvantaged from the start. His disability put him behind the other children in terms of his potential usefulness, and thus, his paranoia of being discarded and determination to survive, mixed in with his limited understanding, is ultimately the fatal recipe that leads him to turn on his siblings.

The decision to cast veteran actress Kim Hye Soo along side newcomer (at the time) Kim Go Eun was an intelligent one. Both women delivered captivating performances which eclipsed their fellow cast mates. That’s not to say that the secondary characters were poorly represented, but—simply put, the two ladies were significantly more gratifying in their given roles. Aside from stellar performances, the film also boasts great color design, paired with some exquisitely sleek cinematography. Every frame of this film was a feast for the eyes—the dingy Chinatown streets, the pops of color from the signage and various buildings’ interior designs, the numerous angled shots, the grungy color palate used for the more grittier scenes, etc. If I could post every screen cap I took, I would.


Overall Thoughts:

This film was enthralling from start to finish. Stylish cinematography combined with solid acting complement the relatively simple revenge plot the film adopts. While there are a few flaws that prevent the film from achieving maximum potential, it still remains a steady watch; one that won’t leave you feeling disappointed by its end. However, if violence and blood are not in your wheelhouse, be sure to avoid this one.

Rating: 7.5/10

Have you watched Chinatown? What did you think of the film? If you haven’t already, you can check out the trailer here.


 

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