Gu Hye-young is the protagonist of the Korean film Girl On A Bulldozer. At 19, Hye-young is pegged as a troublemaker. She’s sullen, angry and can’t seem to stay out of petty fights. One more incident, a judge tells her, and she’s going to jail. For now she must learn to control her anger and take a vocational training course. She opts to learn how to drive a bulldozer, a job the class instructor warns her will never be open to a woman.
While this might sound like the recipe for an upbeat coming-of-age film—in which a girl defies the odds to change how others see her—that’s not the gritty yet moving story of Girl On A Bulldozer.
Hye-young, played by Kim Hye-yoon, is good at talking tough, but burdened by the weight of her father’s failings, she has little agency to actually affect significant change. Hye-young’s dragon tattoo helps project her tough image and captures her rage, yet she keeps it covered for much of the film.
Most of her rage is channeled toward her father, the desperate Gu Bon-jin, played by Park Hyuk-won. He’s a restaurant owner who drinks and gambles away any hope of financial solvency. He may love his children but he’s incapable of protecting them and his moral failings are compounded by those who take advantage of his trust. That includes Oh Man-seok, played by Choi Young-wan, a man who made Bon-jin promises he has no intention of keeping.
One day Bon-jin is involved in an accident and winds up in the hospital. Hye-young suddenly has no easy target to hate or blame for her existence and must face the fact that deep down she cares for her father. She must not only assume the responsibility of caring for her younger brother, but uncover the mystery of how her father got into that accident. In so doing, she discovers the inequity that may have pushed him over the edge.
Kim, who is best known for her work in the Korean TV melodrama Sky Castle and the fantasy romance Extraordinary You, creates a mesmerizing portrait of a young woman who simmers with rage while ignoring her own pain. It is only by dramatically expressing that rage that she can liberate herself and move on. Kim’s nuanced performance in this compelling tale of transformation is so skilled that it earned her the 2022 Screen International Rising Star Asia Award at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Girl On A Bulldozer, directed by Park Ri-woong, will be featured in the New York Asian Film Festival, which runs from July 15 to 31. The film airs on July 25.