“Hell Joseon” manifests as “toxic gas” in Lee Sang-geun’s Exit (엑시트). Millennial “slackers” losing out in Korea’s increasingly cutthroat economy find themselves consumed by their own sense of failure while those around them only compound the problem by branding them useless, no-good layabouts, writing off the current generation as lazy rather than acknowledging that the society they have created is often cruel and unforgiving. Yet, oftentimes those “useless” skills learned while having fun are more transferable than one might think and the ability to find innovative solutions to complex problems something not often found in the world of hierarchical corporate drudgery.
30-something Yong-nam (Jo Jung-suk) spends his days in the park surrounded by grannies and has earned the nickname “IBM” – Iron Bar Man, for his athletic pursuits. The local kids have even come up with an origin story for him that his girlfriend must have died after falling off one and so now Yong-nam is some kind of “village idiot” with an overwhelming need to master the monkey bars. The truth is, however, that Yong-nam has nothing much of anything else in his life. His continual failures to find employment are an embarrassment to his family, and even his little nephew (Kim Kang-hoon) is so ashamed of him that he routinely blanks Young-nam in the street. With mum’s (Go Doo-shim) 70th coming up, everyone is very keen that Yong-nam look the part and try not to embarrass them.
Yong-nam is also quite invested in not being an embarrassment because the only reason he booked this fancy restaurant that’s a two hour drive away is that he’s heard his university crush Eui-ju (Im Yoon-ah) works there. Back in uni when they were both members of the rock climbing club, Yong-nam asked Eui-ju out but she was only interested in friendship so he started avoiding her out of embarrassment. Not really any more mature, he lies that he’s a high flying hedge fund manager rather than admit that his life has not been going well. Eui-ju, meanwhile, is the vice-manager of this events centre but shrugs the job off as not much better than part-time when in reality she’s really running the place while her sleazy boss (Kang Ki-young) who’s only in the position because it’s his dad’s company constantly sexually harasses her and shows no signs of taking no for an answer.
When toxic gas floods the city, however, the pair are instantly in their element. They know how to conjure makeshift stretchers from stuff that’s lying around and how to try and draw attention to yourself when you’re in need of rescue, but find their ideas dismissed by Yong-nam’s confused, conventional family members well used to ignoring crazy uncle Yong-nam. To survive they’ll have to trust him and his rock climbing prowess as he shins his way to the top of the building where salvation seems more of a possibility.
Crisis aside, Yong-nam lives in a world of constant anxiety where he’s forever receiving disaster alerts on his phone for things he never thought he’d have to worry about, and his mother spends her evenings diligently copying down ways to prevent cancer from TV documentaries. Yong-nam’s dad (Park In-hwan) would rather chill out with some soap operas, but it seems you can’t drown out existential dread with vicarious drama. Having more or less given up, Young-nam hasn’t even been going to his climbing club. After all, if you can’t get a foot on the ladder, what use is the ability to climb? “Our lives are the disaster” Yong-nam’s similarly troubled friend exclaims, but the sudden threat of toxic gas does at least give the dejected young man motivation to prove himself in demonstrating that his skills are useful, even essential, rather than frivolous or eccentric as his family members previously believed them to be.
Eui-ju, meanwhile, is kept in her place by a combination of sexism and the demands a hierarchical society which prevent her from fulfilling her true potential by convincing her that she has to be polite to her odious boss. Teaming up with Young-nam, the pair work as equals and support each other as they try to find ways to survive. No damsel in distress, Eui-ju is finally able to take an active role in her own destiny while also making sure to save other people along the way, often at the expense of the pair’s own chance to escape.
In a loose moment, Yong-nam declares that he’s only applying for jobs in one of the shiny skyscrapers from now on because those guys probably got saved first, but in the end it’s their plucky never say die spirit which saves them, in more ways than one, as their exploits go viral with their millennial brethren who eventually motivate the drone squad to try and keep them safe. There may be no exit from Hell Joseon, but as Yong-nam and Eui-ju discover, you don’t have to listen when people tell you there’s no way out because the only way is up and you won’t know unless you go.
Original trailer (English subtitles)