The Girl on a Bulldozer (South Korea, 2021) [OAFF 2022]

Now, here’s a movie that lives up to its title and beyond. The Girl on a Bulldozer is another addition in the long line of recent South Korean films dealing with the social problems, political corruption, and unchecked capitalism of modern-day Korea – a trend not started but popularized by Parasite (2019). First time writer/director Park Ri-Woong proudly follows in those footsteps by delivering a captivating drama about injustice and the possibility of redemption.

The film opens in a courtroom where a young girl (Kim Hye-Yoon) receives a community service sentence for assault. Immediately after the hearing, she chases the girls that ratted her out and beats them up. This is Hye-Young, a troubled teen delinquent with a short fuse and a magnet for bad luck. Her father, Go-jin (Park Hyuk-Kwon) is a gambling addict who is at risk of losing his restaurant to debt and broken promises. Hye-Young also has a younger brother, who for most of the film seems to be the only one that can put a smile on her face. One day her father ends up in the hospital because of an accident with a stolen car from his former employer. Faced with her father’s worsening condition, mounting insurance bills, and an echo of dubious circumstances, she sets on to unravel the mystery surrounding her father’s final actions.

The Girl on a Bulldozer could have just as easily been called The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo since it involves a girl with a dragon tattoo in trouble with the law. While on paper it has all the trappings of a revenge thriller, it is mostly a well-grounded social drama typical of recent Korean cinema. The protagonist is legitimate a troublemaker just as much as she is in trouble (or because of it) with everyone around her. Not the kind of “lovable” troublemaker common in the silver screen, but a character who is genuinely angry at the world and knows no solution to her problems other than rage and confrontation. Hye Young is a non-conformer to the extreme, essentially refusing anyone except her younger brother to get closer to her. Her gender makes her character even more shocking, as is evident from everyone else’s reactions to her behaviour. Writer/director Park Ri-Woong expertly channels what he perceives to be the consequences of a harsh socioeconomic structure through his protagonist, while ensuring that his critique is not heavy-handed. Hye-Yoon gives a remarkable performance to this end, balancing her soft and rough edges in service of her struggles. Despite the film’s poignant writing and direction, it is really her performance that elevates it above the average expectations.

Of course, the core of the story lies in the mystery of Hye-Young father’s accident that she tries to unravel throughout the film. Bit by bit, we delve into a world of insurance fraud, family rivalries, and political corruption, all of which are centered around Go-jin’s refusal to part with his restaurant. Everybody’s got something to hide, and Hye-Young must literally and figuratively bulldoze her way to the truth, even if little comes of it in the end. Hye-young’s motivations lie somewhere in between a personal vendetta and the deep need to reconcile her true feelings for her elusive father. Rather pessimistically, she is unable to change anything for herself or her family – the “system” ultimately wins – though she gains a better understanding of who she is and what path her life must take. In the end, she lets go of her anger and is rewarded for it.

The Girl on a Bulldozer is a fantastic film, filled with tension, great acting, and a socially aware message that is bound to resonate with audiences in and out of Korea.

The Girl on a Bulldozer was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 12.