Samjin Company English Class (삼진그룹 영어토익반, Lee Jong-pil, 2020)

“The year of 1995 will mark the first year of our globalisation” according to the opening stock footage in Lee Jong-pil’s tale of tempered feminism and corporate anxiety, Samjin Company English Class (삼진그룹 영어토익반, Samjingeurup Yeongeotoikban). Partly a nostalgia fest for a mid-90s sense of aspiration which would come to a crashing halt with the financial crisis just two years later, Lee chronicles a society in flux as a new generation of women find themselves kicking back against the ingrained patriarchal attitudes of a conservative society while at the same time experiencing a gradual sense of disillusionment with growing internationalism that ironically sends them straight back into the arms of the chaebol. 

Set concretely in 1995, Lee frames his Working Girl-esque drama around the lives of three office ladies each beginning to age out of their potentially dead end jobs. An evolution of the secretarial pool, office ladies are treated more or less as domestic staff in the corporate environment often assisting the, largely but not exclusively, male workers with admin tasks such as teaching them how to use the fax machine or operate IT software while otherwise expected to perform traditionally feminine roles keeping the office clean and tidy or fetching drinks and cigarettes for their bosses. As such they are largely invisible, the men often talking indiscreetly in front of them because they don’t really matter. No one takes an office lady seriously even while they are perceived as essential, if interchangeable, in the functioning of the office. 

All very capable women, Ja-young (Go Ah-sung), Yuna (Esom), and Bo-ram (Park Hye-su) are looked down on by the few female members of the regular salaried staff because, largely for socio-economic reasons, they have no university degrees. Still, beginning to age out of office lady life they are faced with a conventional choice of finding a husband or attempting to gain a promotion into the ranks of permanent workers. It’s for this reason that they begin taking the company’s English classes, hoping a high TOEIC score will as they’ve been promised smooth the path towards employment. Women coming of age in a newly democratised Korea with its eyes on the rest of the world, they want more out of life than perhaps the previous generation would have done though Ja-young in particular is noticeably ahead of her time wanting not just career success but personal fulfilment. She was glad to work for Samjin because she thought they made products that enriched people’s lives and thinks her work should have a value to society aside from providing personal material comfort. 

That’s one reason she’s determined to do something when she discovers a Samjin factory has been spewing industrial waste into the waters surrounding a small rural village. As office ladies, the three women occupy a liminal space within the company that in a sense makes it easier for them to investigate but gives them little power to affect real change. Conflicted, Ja-young witnesses the company reach a settlement with the villagers assuring them the leak has been small, will have no lasting affect on their health or livelihood, and has been dealt with effectively. Her niggling doubts lead her uncover the cover up, but in this version of the story the enemy turns out not to be large corporations or chaebol greed but duplicitous foreigners taking advantage of the situation to facilitate their own goals of dominating Korean business, in this case by engineering a merger with a Japanese company brokered by an improbably handsome Korean-American corporate mole (David Lee McInnis). 

In fact, the solution that is found in one sense empowers the ranks of the office lady as Ja-young marshals the resentment of her cohorts towards challenging the corrupt status quo, but also makes an awkward defence of chaebol culture as the point of resistance lies in forcing the elderly chairman to reassume personal responsibility over his company. “Yankee go home!” he unsubtly exclaims before discovering that he no longer has much control because he runs a “corporation” in which the shareholder is king. The fact that the industrial pollution is entirely the fault of the chairman’s feckless son promoted above his abilities for dynastic reasons is quietly forgotten as if he were merely a bad apple later forced to face justice for his corporate misconduct while the system largely remains unchanged. Meanwhile, the parallel progress of the three Tess McGill’s eventually hints at a sea change in work culture that allows them to smash the unfair barriers to corporate success but in reality only grants them an unequal access to a patriarchal social order which otherwise remains the same as it ever was. 

Of course, the male members of staff are also in themselves constrained by this oppressive working culture, portrayed largely as spineless corporate drones blindly following orders for the sake of their careers only later given courage to do the right thing by the office ladies’ rebellion. Nevertheless, there is something pleasantly aspirational in the idealistic determination of Ja-young and her friends to succeed on their own terms even if their progress is ultimately undercut by a thinly veiled nationalism that repositions chaebol culture as force for good while forcing the women back into complicity with an inherently oppressive, patriarchal society defined by corporate success. 


Samjin Company English Class screened & streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Microhabitat (소공녀, Jeon Go-woon, 2017)

Microhabitat posterIs there a “right” or, by implication, “wrong” way to live your life? The heroine of Jeon Go-woon’s debut feature Microhabitat (소공녀, Sogongnyeo) is determined to live by her own rules, but her unconventional approach to life in competitive Korean society is not treated with the same kind of universal acceptance with which she treats each and every person she meets on her meandering path towards fulfilment. Life is conspiring to take away even the smallest pleasures which make existence bearable, but small pleasures are sometimes all life is about and perhaps the only thing really worth fighting for.

At 31 years old, Miso (Esom) lives what might outwardly be thought of as a miserable existence. Working as a cleaner she exists hand to mouth and is able to afford only a tiny, unheated, one room apartment in a run down part of the city. Her life is tightly budgeted and whatever else anyone might say about the way she lives, Miso is not irresponsible and refuses to get into debt. It is therefore a huge problem when a New Year price hike threatens to push her beloved cigarettes out of her reach. If that weren’t worrying enough, her landlord is also jacking up the rent. Staring intently at her accounts book, Miso contemplates a life without cigarettes and whiskey and then takes a look around her before deciding to strike through the line marked “rent”. Packing her most essential belongings into a couple of suitcases, she decides to make herself temporarily homeless and reliant on the kindness of former friends now virtual strangers whom she hopes will be minded to repay past kindnesses by putting her up for a while.

Miso’s plight is symptomatic of many in her generation who feel they’ve lost out in Korea’s relentlessly competitive, conformist, and conservative society, but her fate also bears out something of a persistent social stigma directed at those without means or family. Unlike the friends she decides to track down, Miso never graduated university – she lost her parents young and then ran out of money, but then she isn’t particularly bitter about something she was powerless to control. Miso’s small pleasures are also ones generally marked off limits to “nice” young women who generally do not smoke or drink and the old fashioned austerity mentality sees nothing good in a “self indulgent” need to enjoy life by “wasting” money on “frivolous” things if you claim not to be able to find the money to pay your rent. Some would say Miso has her priorities all wrong and has messed up her life by getting trapped in the world of casual labour and still being single at such an advanced age, conveniently ignoring the fact that much of the social order functions solely to keep women like her in their place so the higher ups can prosper.

Miso, however, would probably listen patiently to their concerns before calmly brushing them off. She is happy – to an extent, at least, with her minimalist life. She doesn’t need a fancy apartment or a swanky car, she only wants her cigarettes, her whisky, and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn Jae-Hong) – an aspiring manhwa artist who feels broadly the same but is starting to get frustrated with his own precarious economic circumstances and present inability to offer the degree of economic support which would mean the pair could move in together. The first friend she tracks down, Mun-young (Kang Jin-a), has become a workaholic salary woman who self administers saline drips at work to increase her productivity and declines to put Miso up on the grounds having someone around when she’s not there makes her uncomfortable. Each of her old bandmates has opted for the conventional life but it has not served them well – keyboardist Hyun-jung (Kim Gook-hee) is unhappily married and trapped in a home of oppressive silence, Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook) is a brokenhearted wreck whose wife has left him after less than eight months of marriage, vocalist Roki (Choi Deok-moon) has a strange relationship with his parents, and former guitarist Jung-mi (Kim Jae-hwa) has thrown herself headlong into stepford wife territory going quietly mad through boredom and insecurity in the palatial apartment that belongs to her husband’s family.

For various reasons, Miso understands that she can’t stay with her friends very long though she tries to help each of them as best she can while she’s around. She cleans their apartments, cooks them nutritious meals, keeps them company and listens to their problems though few of them take the trouble to really ask her why it is she is in the position she is in or how they might be able to help beyond providing temporary shelter. Surprised by one of her wealthy clients who is unexpectedly at home during cleaning time and seems to be distressed, Miso does her best to comfort her, making it clear that she does not disapprove of her client’s lifestyle and thinks she has nothing in particular to be ashamed of. The client, vowing to leave her present occupation behind, feels quietly terrible that her decision inevitably means Miso will lose her job but Miso genuinely means it when she says she’s happy for her client and hopes she will be able to attain her dreams.

Forced to leave the memory of each of her friends behind, Miso’s world seems to shrink until even her beloved whisky now seems like it will be out of her reach. Jeon Go-woon is unafraid to lay bare Miso’s bleak prospects, though she depicts them in an often humorous light as Miso goes apartment hunting in the darkest and dingiest part of Seoul, striding up endless flights of stairs to rooms with increasingly tiny windows before landing at the only realistic possibility in a filthy attic space with no electricity. Still, Miso remains undaunted. She is free, beholden to no one, and retains her kind heart even as she becomes a cypher to us, lost under the grey skies of an indifferent city until she alone becomes the tiny light on its ever expanding horizons.


Microhabitat screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)