불도저에 탄 소녀 「Buldojeoe tan sonyeo」
Release Date: April, 2022
Duration: 113 mins.
Director: Park Ri-woong
Writer: Park Ri-woong, (Screenplay)
Starring: Kim Hye-yoon, Park Hyuck-kwon, Yesung,
Over the last five years it feels like South Korean filmmakers have put forth ever increasing numbers of complicated and interesting female lead characters in their films – Lucky Chan-sil and The Slug are my favourites. This tallies with the rise in women sitting in the director’s seat but men are also doing their part as Park Ri-woong’s debut feature, The Girl on a Bulldozer, shows. Although some have billed it as a revenge-thriller (and the poster has those vibes), this is more of a drama of a working-class girl going against the odds to right a wrong done to her family by a rich bad guy.
The girl we are rooting for is 19-year-old Gu Hye-young (Kim Hye-yoon), a thuggish ruggish delinquent living in Incheon whose bad reputation comes from how she approaches people and situations with barely restrained irritation. Even in the face of authority, she is prepared to use vulgarities and violence and seems not to care what people think, as shown by how she brandishes her freshly inked tattoo out in the open.
On the surface, her surliness is laugh-out-loud funny – especially when she clocks a cop with a phone book – but we can attribute her attitude to a tragic background as we learn she has grown up taking care of a debt-ridden failure of a father whose gambling addiction she reckons contributed to her mother’s death. Even years later, he fritters away the family’s income from their Chinese restaurant and effectively leaves her innocent little brother Hye-jeok in her care – the little boy cutely idolises his big sister and her tattoo which he says make her look like a gangster.
She definitely has disdain for her old man and also an admirable swagger to match and it seems that this fiery approach to life will serve her well as she becomes the family guardian after her father winds up brain dead in hospital following him stealing car and getting into an accident that resulted in people getting hurt. Hye-young’s anger keeps at bay her father’s creditors as they come seeking the restaurant and it also gives her the courage to challenge the police investigation. This is where the story takes a turn as a mystery is revealed with the accident being connected to a shady politician whose dark money influences the city. The more Hye-young investigates, the more her anger (and a bulldozer) powers her as she bashes her way to the truth, but will it be enough?
It is always knife-edge stuff. As she stumbles her way through the dark in anger, reliant on clues and evidence left by her supposedly useless father, her character traits definitely get in the way as, despite initially doing some very good detective-work, her mistrust of others, lack of forethought, and mishandling of evidence and witnesses makes her investigation a harder slog than it need be and audiences will always be left on the edge of their seat as they watch how she handles a break in her case.
While she is often mad, in a stark contrast to exploitation and action films with muscle-bound avengers bulldozing their way to a finale, Hye-young is much more vulnerable as a young woman and we are ever aware of it as the threats escalate from berating her father to wrestling with the politician’s entourage of flunkies. It is here that the film dovetails something of a family reconciliation between parent and child as she follows her father’s trail of evidence and finds her anger fails her. Uncomfortable parallels are made with her father as she begins to understand just why he was in such dire financial circumstances and any resolution to the case points to how he hasn’t quite abandoned his kids yet. While most Death Wish-influenced revenge films like I Saw the Devil rely on presenting audiences with a story of a person becoming emotionally hollowed-out and nihilistically sad, The Girl on a Bulldozer chooses to soften Hye-young’s anger with a palpable sense of sadness and regret that allows her to mature into a more complex person without ever falling into maudlin territory.
Realistic rather than bombastic, while the girl does get on a bulldozer, the action remains relatable so don’t go expecting explosions. The bad guys act in ways that are familiar with real-world political corruption – the use of money and favours to buy off people and the threat of violence – and the ways to strike back is more about harnessing public perception and getting police to enforce laws properly. Seeing whether angry Hye-young can do that or not makes for good drama.
The real fireworks come in the emotional transformations of Kim Hye-yoon who gives a moving and memorable performance in her first lead role as Hye-young. She has that movie-like charisma that allows her to carry scenes as she bulldozes her way past many obstacles but as the case wears on she gives more complexity with glimpses of vulnerability – watch her take a deep breath to gather her anger and determination to tackle difficult situations – and when she allows her weakness to show with frustration and tears. This allows the real humanity of the character to shine and she goes from action archetype to genuine person. Not that Hye-young would let the world beat her as she channels her determination to get herself and her family through danger and desperate times to a satisfying ending where she has truly grown and so this rough-mannered girl is a refreshing change of pace for a female lead.
The Girl on a Bulldozer was screened by the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022 on March 12. It will be screened again on March 18.