Director: Park Ri Woong
Actors: Kim Hye-Yoon, Park Hyuk-Kwon, Oh Man-Seok, Yesung, Choi Hee-Jin, Lee Hwi-Jong, Sung Yeo-Jin, Kim Hee-Chang, Han Hye-Ji, Kim Joong-Ki
Duration: 112 mins.
From Paul Bramhall
Korean independent film has long been the trodden ground of dark and gritty dramas focusing on downtrodden and neglected societies, with those focusing on teenage girls almost as a genre unto themselves. Only in the last 10 years have we had Han Gongju, Park Hwa-young, Youngju, Soon, and I’m sure there are many more. In 2021 director and screenwriter Park Ri-woong debuted the curiously titled film The girl on a bulldozer.
Offering the first lead role to popular TV actress Kim Hye-yoon (Midnight, The Villains: Reign of Chaos), In TGOAB extension (as I’ll refer to from here on out) plays a troubled 19-year-old with serious anger management issues. In the opening scene, we are introduced to Hye-yoon as the subject of a court hearing, in which she narrowly avoids a prison sentence due to her involvement in an assault. In lieu of her time behind bars, she is ordered to complete a vocational training course and she chooses to learn to drive a bulldozer, despite the class instructor’s insistence that he will never find a job open to women.
While this may seem like a coming-of-age tale that challenges gender stereotypes about the types of jobs for which women are thought to be best suited, in reality Hye-yoon’s bulldozer training takes place largely in the suburbs ( to the extent we only see her get behind the wheel of a bulldozer once in the training environment). We soon learn that Hye-yoon’s home life is less than ideal. Her mother died several years ago and together with her younger brother now live in a small divided area in the Chinese restaurant run by her father, played by Park Hyuk-kwon (The Mimic, A taxi driver). He is heavily in debt and addicted to gambling, so when the police contact Hye-yoon to let them know that he has driven his car off a bridge and appears to be a brainiac, the various equally desperate characters he has borrowed money from oa whose promises he made (which included a sale and leaving the restaurant) begin to look to her for answers.
As if the pressure of being constantly harangued about moving and knowing that she and her brother are at risk of becoming orphans weren’t enough, when Hye-yoon decides to visit the crash site herself, things don’t add up based on her findings. police and begins digging into his father’s past for answers. To that purpose TGOAB extension it carefully balances the elements of both being a thriller and gritty drama with a level of assurance that belies the fact that it’s a directorial debut.
Part of what makes it work so well is Hye-yoon’s powerful performance. With one arm fully tattooed and an explosive terse curse never far away, he conveys the tension bubbling from his pent-up anger with a sense of immediacy that seems tangible. Though she cuts a light figure, her anger is indiscriminate on who she targets, whether they’re students her same age or adults twice her size, it quickly becomes easy to see how she made it to court during the opening scene. However, with her physical strength deprived of the same bite of her tongue, the result of her often being overwhelmed, and at one point she ends up receiving the kind of beating she would rather inflict on herself.
It’s out of sheer persistence that she refuses to give up whenever she gets in the way, a trait born out of a sense of injustice, and blaming her father for the position they’re in. Thus the title The girl on a bulldozer it can be seen both metaphorically and literally. Hye-yoon’s youth and anger at society sees her steaming her way through Seoul in an attempt to uncover the truth and keep a roof over her and her brother’s heads, never thinking if her approach is the way best way to find the answers you are looking for. looking for. Her addiction to intimidation often sees her stripping off the white cotton sleeve she wears to cover her full arm tattoo (a cultural trait of Korea, where tattoos are not yet as widely accepted socially as they are in the West), but more the depth it gets, the more she begins to realize that it will take more than just being able to intimidate someone if she and her brother are going to get away with it in life.
In some ways there are parallels that can be drawn upon Breathless, Yang Ik-june’s dramatic 2008 drama in which he also plays a character who is furious with the world, and especially with his father, before finding some form of redemption through a teenage girl he meets. Hye-yoon shares a similar view, a perspective that seems to have resigned herself already, and while her journey is one she travels alone, the way we see her interact with her younger brother (played by newcomer Park Si-woo ) allows the audience a few brief glimpses of the girl behind the tough exterior.
Not only is Hye-yoon forced to assume the role of surrogate parent to her younger brother, but as the narrative progresses and collides with an adult world of greed and selfishness, we also witness her gradual realization that she can’t place blame of all his anger only to his father. It is this gradual maturity that we begin to see seeping into her character that ultimately sees her anger focus on the purpose of vengeance. Her latest act of defiance transitions from metaphorical to literal bulldozing for an ending that, while it may not necessarily deliver the justice Hye-yoon has been seeking, at least allows her to make a point in a way that is felt loud and clear.
One of the aspects I liked the most TGOAB extension it’s Ri-woong’s decision not to go into the backstory of how Hye-yoon came to be the way she is. She obviously has had a troubled past, but at no point do we learn the origin of her tattoo along her arm, nor do we see any of her previous run-ins with the law. Ri-woon seems to understand that the audience doesn’t need to be spoon-fed her, and she instead uses the script to subtly incorporate little details that flesh out her character. Hye-yoon’s aunt mentions in passing how she had run away from home earlier, and while at the police station an officer recognizes her as a regular visitor (in an amusing scene that sees her slapping her on the back of the head with a notepad, only for her to reciprocate with one much more often), alluding to her past experiences without needing to resort to pointless flashback scenes.
So, it is TGOAB extension a coming of age story after all? Probably yes, although not in the way one might expect. In the end, the story Ri-woong crafted isn’t so much about providing a sense of closure around the Hyuk-kwon incident, or getting revenge on those who would appear to be responsible for it, as it is about someone making peace. with the unfair circumstances that life has thrown at them. It’s framed here from the perspective of a young adult, but it’s a story that resonates with anyone who is having a hard time due to events that are beyond their control. In one of the final scenes Hye-yoon sits behind the wheel of the bulldozer, urging him to keep going even though he’s been pushed to the limit. He kind of brings the metaphor full circle, as he comes to accept that no matter how much he keeps pushing, he comes to a point where the best thing to do is let go.
Far from another sadly dark and grimy indie film about Korea’s social problems, TGOAB extension it feels like a refreshingly honest character study, maintaining a sense of realism that paints an unforgiving environment for Hye-yoon to navigate, but it never feels like an exercise in misery. As a first-time director and screenwriter, Ri-woong calls himself a talent for looking into the future, and similarly Hye-yoon’s performance deserves to be his breakthrough to bigger and better things. The girl on a bulldozer comes highly recommended.
Paul Bramhall Rating: 8/10