It’s that time of year again. KOFFIA rolls into town, offering the chance to see some fresh films without knowing much about what’s coming. Special Delivery reminded me once more that South Korean movies, even broad crowd pleasers like this, are consistently surprising.
The movie’s forty-five second trailer sells itself on the car chasing and other action, but elements of a lot of other genres — jokes, jump scares, melodrama and more — are along for the ride as well. These bump up against each other frequently, which is sometimes jarring, and sometimes disarmingly delightful. The act of burping has never been deployed with such differing dramatic intent within a single film before. Such tonal sideswipes keep the movie from getting stuck in a rut, but are switched up with such regularity it can be hard to know what lane Special Delivery is working in on occasion. A poignant moment at the climax was even met with some laughter in the theatre I attended, which was perfectly understandable. The bubbles did make it look a bit silly. For all the variance in tone, when action takes a backseat to drama in the middle of the film it does get surprisingly slow. The payoff is an emotionally charged finale that ramps up the pace with a full throated roar.
Eun-ha (Park So-dam) works at a junkyard by the sea that repairs and repurposes damaged cars. Her cantankerous but good-hearted boss Baek Sa-jang (Kim Eui-sung) lines up side jobs for her as an underground courier with the promise to deliver anything. Eun-ha’s skills behind the wheel are shown off within the first ten minutes in a chase equal parts thrilling and funny, in part due to her hapless passengers, but also the tricks she uses to fool her pursuers. This is the most elaborate vehicle sequence in the film, which smartly chooses to vary the vehicular action rather than aim for bigger and bigger set pieces. When a later job goes sideways, Eun-ha winds up with two macguffins riding shotgun. Seo-won (Jeong Hyeon-jun) — an 8 year old boy who insists on calling her ma’am — and the gadget he’s carrying. With a bunch of nasties on her tail, Eun-ha has to decide whether to go beyond the terms of the delivery contract.
The innocence of a child in trouble drawing out the protective side of an adult is a tale that goes back to before roads were paved. See our review of The Man from Nowhere for an example citing many others. Special Delivery hits a bunch of expected plot points, but throws a few twists and turns in as well. Eun-ha is a canny survivor to be sure, but outside of a car she’s way more vulnerable. She’s not a former assassin or ex-government agent, so it’s clever thinking and trickery she uses to even the odds in direct confrontations. She’s reluctant to even get involved with Seo-won because she knows it likely won’t end well and rather than have the film overplay Seo-won’s plight to tug on the heartstrings, it’s a glimpse of her own reflection that finally causes Eun-ha to reverse course. As satisfying as such stories can be, this is not a highly trained individual being unleashed on people who have crossed lines that should never be crossed. It’s a capable person aware of her limitations choosing to fight for the good, in the face of evil so vicious it’s scary, because she couldn’t live with herself otherwise.
Park So-dam’s acting is pitch perfect. Eun-ha is cool and collected behind the wheel, but outside that she’s fun, sharp and confident, with an undercurrent of reserve still present. A neat narrative touch has her back story revealed in chunks by other characters, such as the various police trying to track her down, so she never has to over explain herself or her motivations. We understand, and Park’s acting can therefore be more low-key. For example, her expression shifts quickly from worry, to a small smile of relief, to scolding, when Seo-won reappears after she thinks he has gone missing. The bond between these two is vital for the film to succeed and it works well. The two actors shared some screen time in Parasite and they form a believable connection when their characters are thrown together this time around, through all the bumps along the way.
Another reason it’s easy to cheer them on is that the bad guys are utterly despicable in contrast. Police officer Jo Kyeong-pil (Song Sae-byeok) and his subordinates are so corrupt, so crazed and violent, the police irregularities so blatant, it stretches credibility even for this genre-bending movie. (Unless it’s deliberately farcical and this went over my head.) For starters, that revolver Kyeong-pil touts is surely not a standard issue sidearm. When Korean intelligence gets involved in the story for some inter-departmental intrigue, it’s something of a relief to have a diversion from the cruel methods of the villains.
Outside of the car combat, the human combat is brutal, without being overly graphic. There’s a lot of bludgeoning and stabbing with all kinds of implements and tools, plus several scenes of torture, but mercifully the film does not linger on the damage inflicted for the most part. The interrogations accompanying the torture also lead to some sustained sections of exposition, giving these scenes a purpose beyond demonstrating the depravity of the antagonists. By the climax though, story conventions are begging for these thugs to be taken down.
Director and co-writer Park Dae-min has tuned this film pretty well, but it still stutters at times. The many tone changes springing out of blind spots and one too many plot detours make Special Delivery surprising to the point of inconsistency, but not enough to throw the whole journey off course. Seen in the rear view mirror, it’s still an enjoyable journey I would be happy to take again.