One way to describe the 2020 Korean movie Pawn is as a story of two men raising a young girl. Alas, Pawn is not some groundbreaking moment for queer family representation in Korean cinema; we’re still waiting for that. Instead, Pawn is another instance of the “alternative father figure” movie. In Korean cinema, this subgenre rose to prominence with 2013’s smash hit Miracle in Cell No. 7—which captivated audiences worldwide with a tearjerking tale of prisoners raising a fellow inmate’s young daughter.
Pawn treads similar ground. The film depicts two debt collectors who kidnap an illegal immigrant’s daughter as collateral, but end up feeling sorry for her and becoming de facto father figures. Even if its broad outlines feel familiar, Pawn still effectively tugs at audiences’ heartstrings with compelling acting and well-executed plot twists. Beyond the character dynamics and tearjerking though, Pawn is also worth noting for its relatively sympathetic depiction of Korean-Chinese immigrants to South Korea, who are often marginalized in Korean society and cinema.
Daddy Debt Collectors
Reminiscent of Miracle in Cell No. 7, Pawn begins in the present day. As she prepares to translate for a high-level summit between South Korea and China’s presidents, a woman named Seung-yi (Ha Ji-won) receives a phone call saying that a man that she’s been looking for has been found. With audiences now curious to learn more, the film jumps back in time to 1993. There, we meet two debt collectors: the avuncular Doo-seok (Sung Dong-il), and the timid Jong-bae (Kim Hee-won).
Strolling the streets of Incheon, the pair spot a woman named Myung-ja, who they must collect money from. Upon discovering Myung-ja has no money, Doo-seok makes a sudden decision and grabs her daughter Seung-yi as collateral. If Myung-ja pays up, she gets her daughter back. Unfortunately, Myung-ja is an ethnic Korean from China who illegally immigrated to South Korea—and she gets caught and deported while trying to raise funds for Seung-yi’s return. Amidst this tragedy, Seung-yi (younger version played by Park So-yi) has begun to melt Doo-seok and Jong-bae’s hearts—and the two begin to plunge into the choppy seas of de facto fatherhood.
De Facto Family Verisimilitude
Viewers more focused on character interactions and acting will especially appreciate the three-way dynamic between Doo-seok, Jong-bae, and Seung-yi. Actors Sung Dong-il and Kim Hee-won demonstrate great chemistry in portraying Doo-seok and Jong-bae respectively as complementary characters—it’s as if the two were a real parental couple where one is more gruff while the other more sympathetic. Child actress Park So-yi also stands out for her range, effortlessly switching from sassy to petulant to traumatized between scenes.
All together, the trio manage to cover all the complex dimensions of family life—its sorrows, its joys—and make audiences feel invested in their travails. Therefore, just as a high emotional point occurs, the film can plunge its leading trio into a tragic plot twist and reliably expect viewer tears to flow in great torrents.
While acting skills and emotions are important, it’s far more interesting and novel to analyze how Pawn depicts South Korea’s marginalized Korean-Chinese Joseon-jok community.
Joseon-jok are ethnic Koreans who moved to northeast China starting in the 1910s, when Korea became a colony. While they have Korean blood, Joseon-jok are technically Chinese citizens. During the 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of Joseon-jok migrated to South Korea in search of better economic opportunities—often risking deportation due to lack of proper documentation.
Due to this marginal status, Joseon-jok have suffered discrimination in both real life and South Korean media. Many Joseon-jok are underpaid for work, and lack access to social services. Korean movies and dramas often depict Joseon-jok as gangsters or other unsavory figures, further perpetuating negative stereotypes.
While it is not an activist movie, Pawn sheds light on Joseon-jok struggles from a far more sympathetic perspective. Seung-yi and her mother are Joseon-jok from Yanbian, China, and their socioeconomic status is the reason why Seung-yi ends up in the care of Doo-seok and Jong-bae. One could surmise that, if Joseon-jok weren’t so marginalized, then Seung-yi’s story would be less tragic.
As they assume more and more fatherlike responsibilities for Seung-yi, Doo-seok and Jong-bae also stumble upon additional challenges that Joseon-jok face. For example, Pawn shows Doo-seok struggling to enroll Seung-yi in South Korean schools; even saying she’s the descendant of an anti-Japanese fighter doesn’t get her past the bureaucracy. It’s also intriguing that, as per Pawn’s opening scene, Seung-yi ends up as a high-level Korean-Chinese language translator—such a position suggests a more positive way of looking at Joseon-jok, as bridges between South Korea and an ascendant China.
While it may not have the same novelty as Miracle in Cell No. 7 given the “alternative father figure” subgenre has already been around for a while in Korean cinema, Pawn executes upon that subgenre’s formula well. Along the way, it also offers a more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of South Korea’s Joseon-jok Korean-Chinese community—offering sociopolitical significance beyond the tearjerking family drama.
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Pawn (Korean: 담보)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Kang Dae-gyu. First released September 29, 2020. Running time 1hr 53min. Starring Sung Dong-il, Ha Ji-won, Kim Hee-won, Park So-yi, Yunjin Kim.