Artists have a complicated relationship to the earning of money. Some might feel that it’s only right to be “starving”, that if you’ve managed to support yourself through your art or even a regular side job, you must be doing something wrong. All of which ignores the fact that starving is very unpleasant and continually worrying. How can you make your best art when you’re hungry and frightened of losing the roof over your head? The hero of Choi Changhwan’s Back from the Beat (내가 사는 세상, Naega Saneun Sesang) has learned not to sweat the small stuff but is forced to realise that he may have been somewhat complicit in his own lack of success even if the realisation brings him little more than additional misery.
Minkyu (Kwak Minkyu) is a middle-aged man trying to make it as a DJ. He works as a delivery driver in the afternoons and as a barman in the evenings at a hipster music cafe where the owner occasionally lets him take the stage. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, See-eun (Kim See-eun), is an aspiring artist who currently works at an art school preparing high school students for exams.
The trouble begins when both Minkyu and See-eun begin to feel pressure from their respective bosses. Minkyu, a happy so lucky sort of guy, isn’t the type to pay much attention to his final salary so he’s confused when another driver tells him he thinks they’re being diddled because his records and the money he’s been getting don’t match. After a few calculations, Minkyu realises he’s out as much as $70 but isn’t quite sure what to do about it. He doesn’t want to think his boss is a bad guy and is sure it must be a mistake. He’d probably let it go to not rock the boat (much to his girlfriend’s consternation) but his friend wants to fight and Minkyu finds himself swept along with him. The boss says the difference is for “insurance” but when a driver gets injured he’s told there isn’t any – he’ll have to cover his own medical costs and is even liable for replacing the damaged equipment. Smelling a rat the guys visit a labour lawyer and ask their boss to sign a proper employment contract which turns out to be a big mistake. “Freelance” contractors aren’t employees, after all, and so the guys get sacked with no legal protections in place to help them.
Meanwhile, See-eun’s snooty boss Jiyoung (Yoo Jiyoung) has taken against Minkyu and repeatedly tells her to dump him. By any standards this is hugely inappropriate considering Jiyoung is speaking as a boss and not as a friend, poking her nose into See-eun’s private life which is none of her business. The school is continually shorthanded and lacking in students so Jiyoung gets See-eun to supplement artwork for exhibitions, often with short notice and for no additional pay, even sometimes rejecting the finished pieces and demanding they be redone. Matters come to a crunch when Jiyoung announces that she’s taking on new staff, but See-eun will be getting demoted with a significant salary cut because the new teacher has a degree from a university in Seoul which she feels is more “appropriate” for Se-eun’s current position.
Despite her criticism of Minkyu’s naivety, See-eun doesn’t fight back either. Or at least, she begins to fight back but an embarrassing incident eventually sends her the other way. See-eun also finds herself subject to the artist’s dilemma in that she’s continually pressured by the owner of Minkyu’s bar to draw their posters for which he generally “forgets” to pay her. Despite Minkyu’s loyalty towards him, Jihong (Park Jihong) is not well liked and seems to have a reputation for shady conduct and improper labour relations. See-eun wants Minkyu to get Jihong to sign a proper performance contract but he thinks it’s unnecessary because they’re “like brothers”.
Time again, the lines between friend, colleague, boss, and competitor are manipulated to get powerless dreaming youngsters like Minkyu and See-eun to play along in a system which constantly misuses them. In a land where any vague statements about improving working conditions can see you branded “commie” and dismissed, there is little hope out there for those just wanting to survive in order to facilitate their art or greater purpose. A melancholy portrait of the modern starving artist, Choi Changhwan’s feature debut finds little to be optimistic about in world of inescapable exploitations and impossible dreams.
Back from the Beat was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.