Two enforcers get more than they bargained for when they take a child as collateral in Kang Dae-gyu’s comedy-drama.
“What financier steals a kid?”
Screened at this year’s London Korean Film Festival as its opening film, Pawn kicked off not only the festival but also its main strand Friends and Family. Looking at the way we connect with people within our own family, and outside of it, Pawn – who deals with a somewhat bizarre father-daughter relationship – is the perfect start, showing us that family can truly come from anywhere.
Surly Doo-seok (Sung Dong-il) and his subordinate, the perpetually concerned Jong-bae (Kim Hee-won) are a couple of enforcers working for a loan shark and who are currently looking out for a woman named Myung-ja (Kim Yun-jin). Myung-ja took out a meagre amount to support her and her daughter Seung-yi (Park So-yi) after her husband left but has been unable to make any payments or find work due to her status as an illegal Chinese-Korean immigrant. Needing reassurance that she’ll do good on her debt, Doo-seok kidnaps Seung-yi, with the idea that he and Jong-bae would have her for a few days, tops.
Myung-ja is able to make a call to have her daughter adopted but is arrested and deported back to China. Doo-seok is assured that the debt will be paid for and Seung-yi will be looked after when she is picked up in a few days. However, Doo-seok, Jong-bae and Seung-yi bond during that time, and when the gross uncle figure goes to pick her up, Doo-seok is unsure he’s really got Seung-yi’s best interests at heart.
The movie opens and is occasionally interspersed with scenes of an adult Seung-yi (Ha Ji-won), who is now working as a Chinese-Korean translator. She disappears for the majority of the time we spend with her younger self and her two kidnappers-turned-foster fathers, which actually works in favour of the main narrative. While seeing Seung-yi’s interactions with a now much older Jong-bae are good, it’s the 1993 flashbacks, with all of its cuteness and heart-warming moments, that sold the film to me, not least of which because 8-year-old Park So-yi steals the show in all of her scenes.
The movie banks a lot on the relationship between Doo-seok, Seung-yi and Jong-bae to work, and it thankfully pulls it off excellently. One of the key ways it keeps its “surly adult and cute kid” story from falling flat – like so many others before it have – is that is almost immediately shows Doo-seok’s softer side, and this means that his bond with Seung-yi is established very early on. More surprising is that the big rescue scene (there’s always one) happens right in the middle, which actually means that we see Doo-seok act like a guardian for the rest of the movie, giving us a relationship that develops and grows. In these sorts of movies, it’s too common to see the big bonding moments right at the end which always like wasted opportunities.
And this growth – seeing how Doo-seok and Seung-yi get along throughout the years – is vital to the story. Without this core relationship the movie would fall apart, largely thanks to its wildly inconsistent tone and pacing. Calling it a comedy-drama isn’t enough. Pawn makes these jumps between lighthearted interactions and soul-crushing tragedy so rapidly that you never know if you’re crying tears of joy or sadness. The ending scenes also feel a little dire, at least compared to what came before, and no amount of mid-credits scenes can make them feel really justified.
However, it’s not like any of the content in those scenes are bad or anything and the film never loses its innate optimism even during some of the darker moments. It’s just that sometimes it feels like you’re watching a couple of episodes of a longer-form series than you are a self-contained film. But these are minor gripes in what is otherwise a kind and positive film. And in a world that seems increasingly pessimistic, seeing this level of compassion and love from people who seem shitty on the outside feels like something we could all use.
Verdict: Endearing in a dozen different ways, Pawn sometimes lays it on a bit thick, but it’s never manipulative and earns its emotional punches.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Pyjamas: Damn, guys, it’s been ten years. Get some new shirts.
Also known as: 담보, Dambo
Director: Kang Dae-gyu
Writer: Park Ji-wan
Sung Dong-il – Doo-seok
Kim Hee-won – Jong-bae
Ha Ji-won – Adult Seung-yi
Park So-yi – Child Seung-yi
Hong Seung-hee – Teen Seung-yi
Kim Yum-jin – Myung-ja
Kim Jae-hwa – Madam Jeong