The Land of Seonghye (성혜의 나라, Jung Hyung-suk, 2018)

Land of Seonghye posterA rapidly developing economy dangles the promise of social mobility, but like a hamster turning endlessly inside an empty wheel, the prize is often unattainable. The young men and women at the centre of Jung Hyung-suk’s The Land of Seonghye (성혜의 나라, Seonghyeui Nara) are caught in an endless struggle of bureaucratic trials, perpetually stepping over each other trying to get one more foot on the ladder to corporate success only for something to catch them by the ankles and pull them back down again. For the unlucky youth of modern Korean society, there may be no way out of its relentless demands other than to retire from the game entirely.

29-year-old Seonghye (Song Ji-in) lives a hand to mouth existence working two part-time jobs – one in a convenience store and the other delivering newspapers. Too tired to sleep, she knocks herself out with tranquillisers and mostly subsists on expired produce from her convenience store job. Meanwhile, she’s taking classes at cram school, trying to improve her TOEIC score, and chasing interviews at corporations in the hope of scoring a permanent position. A health scare underlines the fact that things can’t go on as they are, but there are only two other choices open to Seonghye – give up and go home to work in her parents’ restaurant, or marry her similarly troubled boyfriend Sanghwan (Kang Doo) which necessarily means he gives up on his civil service dreams and gets a regular job somewhere else.

When we first meet Seonghye, she’s sitting alone in a park watching the surreal action of the other visitors rocking back and forth on the exercise swings. Motion without direction seems to accurately sum up Seonghye’s way of life. At 29, she’s facing the facing the prospect that it’s already too late. On the old side for an entry level position, she’s been struggling to secure key interviews but she thinks there’s another reason she isn’t being selected. Some years previously, she’d achieved her dreams with an internship at a major company but she quit before it ended. The reason she left was familiar enough – sexual harassment at the hands of the boss. She reported it. It was ignored. She went to the police and they did nothing. None of the other women backed her up and the working environment became so uncomfortable that she was forced to resign. Working in the convenience store, Songhye runs into an old colleague who reveals that her lecherous boss got a big promotion and is well on the way to mainstream success. Such is life.

Seonghye’s former colleague seems happy enough with her corporate existence, perhaps a little self absorbed and insensitive, not spotting just how uncomfortable Seonghye is with being exposed at her “humiliating” part-time job. Seonghye lies out of embarrassment and tells her former officemate that this is her family’s store and she’s just helping out while she prepares to study abroad. She tells the doctor that she’s a graduate student, too ashamed to admit she’s drowning in the seas of “hell Joseon” all while her solicitous parents remind her she can always come home though doing so feels like accepting defeat from which she might never recover.

Seonghye is far from alone in her troubles. Many of her university friends are in a similar situation, mostly unemployed or in continuous cycles of unpaid “opportunities” which never pay off. Suicide hovers on the horizon as a prideful solution to the impossibility of their lives while others embrace the cruel individualism of the capitalist society, accepting that you will need to betray your friends if you’re going to get ahead. Seonghye doesn’t want that. She doesn’t want to get ahead by throwing bodies to the wolves but the world keeps conspiring against her and soon not even this sort of no life existence will be viable.

Later, Seonghye gets an unexpected windfall for the most terrible of reasons. She has no idea what to do with the money – it is a significant amount, it might be enough to live on frugally (and alone) for a number of years. Should she invest her money wisely and live simply for the rest of her days or keep on running herself into the ground trying to attain corporate success and the social status that goes with it? Seonghye makes her decision. Suddenly her motion has direction once again. She smiles for the first time in a long while, shrugging off the burdens of an oppressive society and embracing her own freedom in the face of its relentless drive.


The Land of Seonghye was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cart (카트, Boo Ji-young, 2014)

cartUp until very recently, many of us lucky enough to live in nations with entrenched labour laws have had the luxury of taking them for granted. Mandated breaks, holidays, sick pay, strictly regulated working hours and overtime directives – we know our rights, and when we feel they’re being infringed we can go to our union representatives or a government ombudsman to get our grievances heard. If they won’t listen, we have the right to strike. Anyone who’s been paying attention to recent Korean cinema will know that this is not the case everywhere and even trying to join a union can not only lead to charges of communism and loss of employment but effective blacklisting too. Cart (카트), inspired by real events, is the story of one group of women’s attempt to fight back against an absurdly arbitrary and cruel system which forces them to accept constant mistreatment only to treat their contractual agreements with cavalier contempt.

Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) is a loyal employee at the Mart. She’s had zero penalty points for five whole years and has been told that she’s about to be transferred from a temp worker contract to a regular employee position. Run more like a cult than a supermarket, the Mart’s workers all wear pristine blue and white uniforms and recite the dramatic sounding company credo every morning, vowing to increase sales whilst honouring customer service, and are instructed to say “Welcome Beloved Customer!” to each and every visitor. Eager to take on extra overtime with no extra pay and always at the beck and call of brusque manager Choi (Lee Seung-joon), Sun-hee is respected by her colleagues but perhaps not always liked as her goody two-shoes persona both makes them look bad and encourages the management to continue taking advantage.

Sun-hee’s dreams are about to crumble when the evil corporate suits at HQ decide it would be cheaper to fire all the temp workers and use outsourced labour instead. Despite all her long years of hard work and sacrifice, not only is she not getting her secure position, she might not have a job at all. Some of the other women decide they’ve had enough with their poor working conditions and it’s worth taking the chance on forming a union to fight head office together. Sun-hee is reluctant but is eventually convinced to become one of the spokespeople, after all, if they won’t listen to miss five years no penalties, who will they listen to?

It’s worth asking the question why all these terrible jobs with low pay and frequently exploitative conditions are being done exclusively by women. All of the workers on temporary contracts are female from the cleaning staff to the shelf stackers and cashiers, but all come from different backgrounds from young university graduates to old ladies and ordinary working wives and mothers. The management is unwilling to listen to the concerns of their staff because they are “only women”, “working for pocket money” and should just be grateful that the store gave them something to do rather than being bored at home. Pointing out that many of these women are single mothers or live in difficult economic circumstances meaning they need that money to eat would likely not go down well with these fiercely conservative, wealthy executives whose only response is to tell the women not to be so silly and to stop making a fuss over nothing because the men have business to do.

After just ignoring the women fails and they decide to go on strike eventually occupying the store for a longterm sit in, the company go on the image offensive, offering minor concessions including the reinstatement of some, but not all, workers and other small improvements designed to guilt some of the employees with more pressing circumstances to cross the picket line. Eventually, they go to the extreme measures of employing armed thugs and riot police to remove the women by force. In contrast with other similarly themed films from other countries, there is no attempt to get the press onside to expose the company’s workings and the only news reports seen in the film are extremely biased, painting the women as selfish loonies making trouble for everyone by refusing to shut up and accept the status quo.

Following a fairly standard trajectory, the main narrative thrust is the gradual blossoming of near brainwashed and timid employee Sun-hee into a firebrand campaigner for social justice. Through being encouraged to stand up for the other women, Sun-hee becomes concerned not just with her own treatment but the general working environment in Korea. This new found indignation also helps rebuild her relationship with her sullen teenage son after he experiences some workplace discrimination of his own which his mother is able to sort out for him now that she is not prepared to simply smile, nod, and apologise every time someone attempts to get their own way through intimidation.

Cart treats an important issue with the kind of levity and interpersonal drama which make it primed for a screen one hit rather than a later night run in screen five catering to those already aware of the issues. It probably isn’t going to agitate for any direct social change and according to the final caption the outcome of the original incident was more of a bittersweet accomplishment rather than an outright victory. Still, the fight goes on, even if you find yourself ramming a supermarket trolley into a riot officer’s shield to get the message across – an effect which Cart mimics in its quest to ensure as many people as possible get the memo that the time for passive acceptance has long since passed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)