“Please let me live with dignity” the hero of Jung Jae-ik & Seo Tae-soo’s Awoke (복지식당, Bogji Sigdang) eventually pleads as a sole judge looks down on him from on high, advocating for himself but seemingly finding little support. Co-directed by Jung who is disabled himself and employing a mixed ability crew, Jung & Seo’s kafkaesque drama explores the vagaries of disabled life in the contemporary society in which there is still a degree of stigmatisation towards those with differing needs while the expanding welfare system also presents its own barriers preventing those with disabilities from leading full and fulfilling lives.
This 34-year-old Jae-gi (Jo Min-sang) discovers when he suddenly becomes disabled after a traffic accident. As his mother died while he was in the hospital, he has only his cousin Eun-ji, who is a single mother to a teenage son, and an elderly landlord to look after him while it seems no one has fully explained the options he now has. His hospital roommate, Bong-su, seems to be an old hand, visited by a man in wheelchair, Byeong-ho whom he calls brother, who has evidently explained to him how to game the system which is why he is later rated level 2, the second most severe category of disability, despite being fully able to walk and perform everyday tasks with relative ease. Being an honest person, Jae-gi fully co-operates with the civil servant sent to assess his level of disability and as he is able to stand and make a few steps to transfer into a wheelchair independently he is put down as able to walk, and as the assessor is able to move his left arm which constantly tremors and has low functionality he is graded level 5 or “mildly disabled”.
To anyone’s eyes, this is plainly ridiculous. Jae-gi needs an electric wheelchair in order to get around and can only manage basic every day tasks such as housework and laundry with assistance. He is also forced to move out of the flat his mother left him because it’s a walkup, meaning he has to rent an accessible room. He tries to apply for various schemes intended to help people like him so that he’d be able to use subsidised accessible taxi services and have access to a personal carer but is repeatedly told he doesn’t “qualify” because of his level five designation. Unable to claim for disability living allowance, Jae-gil wants to get a job but again on visiting a specialist service designed to help those with disabilities get into work finds himself falling between two stools. The first interviewer simply looks at him and explains he wants someone who can walk and lift heavy objects, which is incongruous with advertising jobs to people with physical disabilities. The second wanted to hire him right away only to rescind the offer on looking at his welfare card explaining her company only hires levels one to three. Byeong-ho, who happens to work there too, explains that’s because companies are given subsidies for hiring the “severely” disabled which on paper Jae-gil is not.
Time and again, Jae-gil becomes the victim of officious bureaucracy. The services needed to help him exist, but he is prevented from using them because an over officious assessor was too literal with his form. He’s told that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to get one’s level changed, a claim which seems doubly unfair given that disability can of course change over time. Intensely vulnerable, he comes to over rely on Byeong-ho’s advice, little knowing that Byeong-ho is also exploiting him despite being aware that he has no money and is in danger of being evicted from his flat if he is not able to get his level changed to enable him to work, claim the assistance he is entitled to, and live a fulfilling independent life.
Encouraged by Byeong-ho, Jae-gil is certain that he’s going to get his rating overturned, assuring his cousin there’s no need to sell his mother’s flat in which she is currently living after losing her house when her husband passed away from cancer because he’ll soon have a job and can pay the rent. Perhaps to a certain extent you can’t blame Byeong-ho for being the way he is given the way he has also experienced exploitation and discrimination not to mention violence at the hands of a father who couldn’t accept having a disabled son, but his almost sadistic glee in fleecing Jae-gil of the little he has is plainly unforgivable, reaching out in solidarity as one disabled person to another only to pass on his sense of oppression to someone even more vulnerable. Forced into a kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, all Jae-gil can do is repeatedly state his case only for those in positions of power to claim they are prevented from helping him because his card says level five despite the obvious evidence of their eyes. Nevertheless, through his traumatic experiences of betrayal and exploitation, he perhaps awakens to the injustice inherent in the contemporary society and is resolved to advocate for himself though the jury is it seems out on whether anyone is finally going to listen.
Original trailer (English subtitles)