I Don’t Fire Myself (나는 나를 해고하지 않는다, Lee Tae-gyeom, 2020)

“All we asked for is not to die” a disgruntled employee reasonably explains, finally finding her voice on being confronted with the consequences of her complicity. Lee Tae-gyeom’s impassioned workplace drama I Don’t Fire Myself (나는 나를 해고하지 않는다, Naneun Nareul Haegohaji Anneunda) is the story of one woman’s path towards reclaiming agency over her life, but it’s also a subtle condemnation of rampant capitalism and the various ways entrenched social mores can set the oppressed against each other, hiding from the very ways they are each victims of the same social order. 

30-ish Jeong-eun (Yoo Da-in) is a talented employee working at an electrical company but her capability only makes her a threat to her male bosses. Insisting that “it’s not about whether a woman can do the job”, her superior forces her to accept a one-year transfer to a rural electrical engineering subcontractor promising that if she works out the contract she can come back to HQ. Resolving to make the best of a bad situation Jeong-eun soon realises her new boss is not keen to have her. Her presence is an obvious inconvenience to the other three male employees who must now put a curtain up so they can change into their work clothes while resenting the unexpected intrusion into their working life. What soon becomes clear to Jeong-eun is that her new assignment is in reality just an elaborate form of “banishment room”-style constructive dismissal. Her old boss is trying to make her working life so miserable that she’ll quit on all her own. 

Only, as a friend of Jeong-eun’s points out, neither of them can afford to quit because it’s so unlikely they’ll be able to find alternative employment. Jeong-eun was good at her job, but as a woman she has very little chance of career advancement and had to work twice as hard as the men just to be employed. Perhaps for these reasons, she refuses to quit resolving to stick out the year in the sticks to see what happens, but her new manager refuses to give her any work and is himself pressured by the higher ups to either push Jeong-eun towards resignation or engineer a reason to fire her. Her male colleagues only come to resent her more when it’s revealed that the substation is expected to cover her salary out of their budget which is also being reduced meaning someone will likely be out of a job. Hoping to win their trust and respect, she studies electrical engineering manuals in her off hours and offers to accompany them into the field but is quickly undone by anxiety as she looks up at the tall towers of the electricity pylons unsure how she could ever scale them. 

There is something of a potent metaphor in Jeong-eun’s attempts to climb these infinite structures while the men around her laugh and try to pull her down. Latterly sympathetic colleague Seo (Oh Jung-se) snaps at her that for men like him getting fired is worse than dying and the reason she can’t climb is that for her it never will be. But Seo has in a sense miscalculated. Jeong-eun may be educated and middle class, but as she claps back to her getting fired and dying are synonyms. They are each victims of the same system, but blind to the ways they are similarly misused. Jeong-eun knows only too well the costs of getting fired, her grief over a close friend who took her own life after being forced out of her job possibly contributing to her self-destructive drinking problem. Seo meanwhile is constantly being reprimanded for falling asleep on the job, largely because he also works a series of part-time gigs to make ends meet such as manning the till in a convenience store and working as an Uber driver. As Jeong-eun discovers this dangerous, highly skilled work which is essential both for public safety and economic support pays almost nothing while the workers are also expected to provide their own protective safety gear including electric resistant overalls which run to $1000. 

The inspectors sent to undermine Jeong-eun and pressure the manager harp on about how the company has already been privatised and can no longer afford “inefficiency” while continuing to exploit their employees and ride rough shod over both employment law and people’s basic rights. Jeong-eun has three months to decide if she wants to try suing them for constructive dismissal but is warned that if she does the company will retaliate and even if she wins the quality of her working life may not improve. Yet if everyone goes on thinking only of themselves the company will continue to get away with their nefarious practices 

Pushed to breaking point, Jeong-eun’s epiphany comes only after a colleague is killed after being asked to fix a transmission tower in unsafe conditions while her slimy boss shows up to pressure his young daughter who can’t be more than 10 to sign away her right to proper compensation. She realises that she’s been “fired” by everyone in her life from her parents to her company, but has also been wilfully complicit in her reluctance to rock the boat believing that if you work hard and follow the rules you’ll eventually succeed even while intellectually knowing that that way of thinking is merely another tool used by the powerful to maintain their grip on power. She realises that she doesn’t need to fire herself too, seizing her own agency to mount a resistance towards the amoral venality of her ultra capitalist bosses by refusing to play by their rules anymore. A subtle yet pointed attack on the radiating effects of Korea’s notoriously poor labour law, I Don’t Fire Myself allows its educated middle-class heroine to find unexpected solidarity with a working-class labourer while ending on a note of positivity as Jeong-eun finds the courage to climb alone in the hope of bringing the light to others much like herself. 


I Don’t Fire Myself streams in the US Aug. 18 to 23 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original teaser trailer (English subtitles)

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Lee Won-tae, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

81745_1000“Two bad guys will catch the worst man” according to irritated gangster Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok) in Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Akinjeon). He doesn’t quite know how right he is, even as he forms an unlikely alliance with a maverick cop himself highly irritated because his lazy colleagues won’t listen to his theory that a spate of unsolved murders are the work of a serial killer. More alike than they’d care to admit, the two “bad guys” team up to do what they have to do in order to make the killing stop but at what price?

A vicious killer (Kim Sung-kyu) has developed a habit of rear-ending solo drivers on lonely roads, stabbing them repeatedly and then leaving them for dead. Maverick cop Tae-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) has become convinced that the killings were carried out by the same perpetrator and that they have not yet been identified as a “serial killer” partly because the crimes took place in different districts and there is insufficient co-operation between precincts, and partly because his colleagues think serial killers are something you see in American movies. His superiors just want to close cases, they aren’t particularly concerned with upholding justice or protecting the innocent and so Tae-seok starts thinking outside of the box when he hears that the killer’s latest target was none other than top mob boss Jang Dong-su.

Dong-su got rear-ended after running an errand to have a word with a wayward underling, Hur (Yoo Jae-myung), who has forgotten his place. The killer made a serious mistake going after Dong-su who is a big, handy kind of guy and therefore manages to fend him off, even wounding him in the shoulder despite being badly injured himself. Though the obvious conclusion is that Hur sent someone after him, Dong-su is unconvinced seeing as he had never seen his assailant before and is pretty sure he’s not a member of the gangster underworld. Still, he’s very annoying because a gangster only has power in being respected and right now Dong-su looks a fool. If he wants to get his “professional” life back on track, he needs to get his revenge but to do that he’ll have to cross the floor and work with law enforcement, temporarily teaming up with rogue cop Tae-seok whose heart is in the right place even if he’s not averse to bending the rules.

One of the things which most bothers Tae-seok about amoral killer “K” is that, unlike most serial killers, he kills indiscriminately and purely for pleasure. He has no “type” and generally goes up against those most likely to fight back, unlike your average pattern killer who targets the vulnerable. Like Tae-seok and Dong-su, he is however quite annoyed – this time because someone has “framed” him for a murder he didn’t commit in order to further their own ends. Hugely overconfident and cooly psychopathic, he sits in the dock and asks what makes his crimes different than the state’s if the state is fixing to execute him without proper evidence. Pointedly looking at law enforcement, he affirms that the real villains are those who commit crime with kind faces (say what you like, but at least K looks the part).

When it comes to Tae-seok he might have a point. Conspiring with Dong-su to “kill him with law”, Tae-seok gleefully manipulates the system while giving Dong-su tacit permission to take his revenge as long as “justice” has been properly served. K doesn’t believe in anything, Tae-seok believes in a particular kind of “justice” if not quite in the law, while Dong-su mourns the sense of self-belief that allows you to rule the roost as an all powerful gangster. The three men are a perfect storm, each angry, each resentful, each vowing a particular kind of revenge against the forces which constrain them be they corrupt and lazy superiors, gangsterland disrespect, or the “injustice” of being accused of a crime you did not commit but not being properly credited for the ones you did. Bathed in a garish neon, Lee’s anti-buddy-cop drama embraces its noirish sense of fractured morality with barely suppressed glee as its similarly conflicted heroes pursue their violent destinies, true to their own but dragged to hell all the same.


The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Revivre (화장, Im Kwon-taek, 2015)

revivreThe 102nd film from veteran Korean film director Im Kwon-taek may appear close to the bone in its depictions death, suffering, and the long look back on a life filled with the quiet kind of love but Revivre (화장, Hwajang) is anything but afraid to ask the questions most would not want to hear as the light dwindles. The inner journey is just too hazy, as one man puts it, unknowingly commenting on the human condition, yet Im does manage bring us nicely into focus, if only for a moment.

Oh (Ahn Sung-ki), a successful salaryman working in marketing for a cosmetics company, finds himself slightly adrift as the brain tumour his wife, Jin-kyung (Kim Ho-Jung), had previously suffered from resurfaces. The treatment this time is apparently not as successful leading to prolonged hospitals stays as Jin-kyung’s condition deteriorates and she begins to require a greater level of medical care. While all of this is going on, Oh is still very much dedicated to his work but has also begun to indulge in an old man’s folly, fantasising about the pretty new girl at the office.

Much of Revivre is concerned with Oh’s inner life, the things he does not say (which are many because Oh is a quiet sort of man). Ahn Sung-ki captures this quality well in playing Oh with a kind of blankness that could be the numbing sensation of grief or an extension of his ordinarily reserved nature. This makes his impromptu verbal attack on the figure of his fixation, Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri), all the more unexpected though his remorse over having acted in such an out of character way may actually help to generate a kind of relationship between the pair albeit more of a paternal than romantic one.

Oh’s continuing fixation on Eun-joo, the woman who becomes the accidental focus of his world even though his wife lying dies in a hospital, is intended to be a fantasy and nothing more. An early dream sequence sees Oh participating in an elaborate traditional funeral taking place in a desert in which all of the mourners are dressed in black, except, of course, for Eun-joo – the only fixed point of reference, clothed in vibrant purple and smiling back at him in contrast to the solemn faces of the other guests, each staring at the floor. In the real world time slows down for him as Eun-joo dances youthfully in a nightclub and as he leaves the party early, her’s is the lone still face, haunting him as he looks back at the other revellers still enjoying themselves heartily even outside the club.

Indeed, “looking back” with all of its various advantages and disadvantages becomes another central theme as Oh becomes a kind of Orpheus descending into his own personal hell in the hope of dragging back his departed Eurydice – an idea neatly recreated in one of the film’s few outright fantasy sequences in which Oh dreams himself into an avant-garde dance show. Like Orpheus, Oh cannot help but look back though he risks losing all in the process. What Eun-joo represents for him is perhaps not the woman herself but an image of his own youth and a desire to live again as he once lived before. The present and the past begin to overlap for him, Eun-joo becomes the future he cannot touch as well as the returning spectre of a past he cannot return to.

Oh’s daughter asks him at one point if he ever really loved her mother. His reaction to losing his wife is, it has to be said, restrained, practical. Yet this question is answered with an immediate cut to Oh helping his wife to the bathroom, performing the most intimate of tasks with unwavering devotion. As his wife fades, Oh’s fantasies become a shield against the growing fears of his own mortality as his body also begins to fail him. The melancholy sense of loss and loneliness coupled with the inevitability of the passage of time pervade as each of Oh’s points of reference slips away from him at exactly the same time.

Im opts for a non-linear approach beginning with Jin-kyung’s passing and thereafter moving freely, reflecting Oh’s fleeting memories and interior confusion as he deals with such a traumatic, life altering event. Neatly framing Oh’s dilemma within his work in which he faces a choice of sticking with the current marketing strategy or striking out in a bold new direction, Im plays with the eternal theme of transient beauty in a society which prizes bodily perfection above all else. The film’s Korean title plays on a pun involving a homonym which means both “cremation” and “makeup” perhaps harking back to the central theme that you dig a grave for yourself if you attach the wrong sort of importance to the impermanent, but is in a sense ironic as one represents a final acceptance and the other an attempt to hold off the inevitable. Poetic and intensely moving, Revivre is another characteristically multilayered effort from Im, still at his full strength even in this late career effort.


International trailer (English subtitles/captions)