“Everyone just takes it” the heroine of Park Ri-woong’s Girl on a Bulldozer (불도저에 탄 소녀, Bulldozere Tan Sonyeo) is advised by her partly well-meaning uncle, urging her to know her place, stop fighting and become complicit with the injustice that pervades their society. Already beaten down by life, he has come to the conclusion that there is no other way out other than to submit himself to the quasi-feudalistic social codes of contemporary capitalism, but Hye-yeong (Kim Hye-Yoon) is still naive enough to think that she’s entitled to fairness and that she has the capacity to resist if not exactly for the good of society then in standing up for herself and her family. 

Family is however something about which she feels conflicted, disappointed in her feckless father (Park Hyuk-Kwon) fearing his gambling and drinking problems may have got the better of him yet again. As the film opens, 19-year-old Hye-yeong is in court charged with assault after intervening in a convenience store dispute. She already has a criminal record but the judge is lenient with her in reflection of the fact that she stepped in to defend someone weaker than herself, sentencing her to community service and vocational training rather than prison but reminding her she is now old enough to receive a custodial sentence should anything like this happen again. It’s immediately obvious that Hye-yeong is a very angry young woman who has already lost any real hope for the future, staking everything on saving enough money from her part-time jobs to rent a flat so she can move out and take her younger brother Hye-jeok with her. 

What little stability she has disappears when her father leaves early one morning and does not return, Hey-yeong receiving a call from the police informing her he’s a wanted man having apparently committed an assault and stolen a car from his former employer which he later drove off a bridge harming two pedestrians in the process. Meanwhile she also discovers that her father may have lost the restaurant where they live and work, a couple turning up to make alterations as if they already owned the place, the woman claiming that her husband is the nephew of Chairman Choi (Oh Man-seok) her father’s former boss and the owner of the car which he is accused of stealing. Part of Hye-yeong’s problem is her liminal adolescent status. It’s obvious her father had been keeping a lot of things from her while she’s constantly asked when her mother is coming to sort everything out though her mother died years ago and even the aunt she later approaches for help is less than sympathetic partly as we discover because her father dragged his brother into his money problems by making him a witness to a deal with the increasingly shady Choi. 

Choi is an embodiment of corrupt chaebol culture, adopting a quasi-feudalistic authority that allows him to wield his authority over those lower than himself in the complicated class hierarchy of the contemporary society as if he were a lord and they merely serfs. Also in debt to him, Hye-young’s uncle tries to talk to her about the way the real world works, that she should stop resisting Choi whom she blames one way or another for her father’s accident and know her place, acknowledging that when you’re nice to men like Choi they’re nice to you blaming his brother not for his foolish decision to trust him but for his eventual rebellion in insisting on getting what he was promised rather than submitting himself to Choi’s whim. The fact that Choi is currently running for political office promising to “never surrender to injustice” while making this small corner of backstreet Incheon great again through almost certainly corrupt construction contracts is only another expression of the insidious links between business and politics that once again work to oppress young women like Hye-yeong. 

Meanwhile, she finds herself constantly at the mercy of shady insurance companies one working for the victims of her father’s accident who turn out to be, as she thought, scammers playing up their injuries in the hope of cash amid the compensation culture that defines the modern society. Then again on the other hand, she discovers that her father had reactivated a series of insurance policies of his own, some suggesting the accident may have been a suicide attempt in that he hoped to take his debts with him while providing his children with financial security through the payout. The dragon tattoo on Hye-yeong’s arm which she has to hide with a sleeve in mainstream society marks her out as someone not to be messed with, but also exiles her from conventional success making it difficult to get a regular job or walk around without the implication of violence following her while even the vocational training she chooses of learning how to drive heavy vehicles also rejects her the instructor flat out saying that he’s “not being sexist” but thinks the course is unsuitable for a woman and she won’t find work as one in the construction industry. Young, reckless, and naive Hye-yeong opts for short-term vengeance literally attempting to take a bulldozer to the comfortable lives of men like Choi whose wealth is founded on the exploitation of those like her in counting on their desperate complicity, but discovers that his position is already far too entrenched to be turfed out by a single mechanism alone. “We at Korea Insurance will always be a source of strength for you” she’s ironically told after finally receiving a payout rather than an invoice left with little other choice than to try and make her way free of the control of the Chois of the world in rejecting her complicity. 

The Girl on a Bulldozer screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Clip (English subtitles)

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