By Pierce Conran
Following hot on the trail of recent Korean dramas seeking to depict the plight of Korea's common class is Cart, a David vs. Goliath, based-on-fact tale detailing the injustices of Korea's labor system and the harsh treatment of women in Korean society. With her latest film, Boo Ji-young returns to the director's chair five years after her indie feature Sisters on the Road, with a bigger cast and a far more pointed social agenda.
In addition to its full-time staff, a big box retail store employs a large number of part-time employees. One day, in a bid to cut costs, upper management decides to prematurely end all of their contracts and fill their labor needs with an outsourcing firm, to bring down salary costs and release them of any employee obligations. Shocked at the unfair dismissals, many of the temp staff begin to panic, facing the loss of desperately needed sources of income. Together they decide to form a labor union to protect themselves, but when the leaders they nominate to represent them are ignored by office executives, they move on to more drastic measures. They stage a strike to shut down the store, but it isn't long before police intervene on behalf of the corporate suits,
Beginning as an ensemble drama showing the different and difficult circumstances of the store's workers, Cart takes its time to set up the tense standoff between the company and its former employees. As things escalate, the inherent unfairness of the labor system is brought to the fore and the power brokers show their true colors, treating the strikers as an infestation that needs to be wiped out, first by hired thugs and then by water cannons.
Yum Jung-ha, who has been more active on television of late, makes a major big-screen comeback as Sun-hee, a hesitant single mother of two who needs her job but is scared to rock the boat when discontent brews within the store. Playing her as both a thick-skinned parent and thin-skinned activist (at least at first), Yum's performance is natural and empathetic. Sun-hee's transition from shy worker bee to strike leader is ably sold by the veteran actress, who shows how an ordinary person can be spurred to action through time and circumstance. Getting the ball rolling on the labor discussions is Hye-mi, a no-nonsense mother who has no patience for kow-towing when it becomes clear that her livelihood, and that of her co-workers, is at risk. Hide and Seek star Moon Jung-hee brings her intensity and steeliness to this practical character, yet one whose levelheadedness leads her to unexpected actions.
The strike leader for the older cleaning ladies is Soon-rye, played by Kim Young-ae, the matronly actress who played a similar role in last year's breakout social drama The Attorney. Fiery and caustic, she turns her cantankerous senior into a mother figure who becomes a catalyst for change. Meanwhile, popular star Kim Kang-woo plays the well-liked manager Dong-joon, who must choose what side he falls on when the dispute escalates. Though Kim has no trouble portraying his charm and later his inner conflicts, his is probably the least realized of the main characters.
Relying on her strong cast, director Boo personalizes the repercussions of Korea's poor treatment of workers, yet she resists the impulse to present a one-sided argument. Some of the strikers give up easily, others are nervous to get involved and members of management are also shown to be struggling with their orders. Mostly shot in a large, non-descript store. the film's tone is stripped down, limited to whites, greys and the pale blues of the store uniforms. Reinforcing the humanity that toils within the enterprise's walls, Boo injects color in choice moments and spaces. Starting with the hints of home life; messy, lived-in interiors contrasting with the clinical work space; she then turns the store floor into a warm community when the lights go out during a sit-in, and moves on finally to the colorful protest tents set up outside the store.
It may not have the bite of The Attorney or the profundity of something like A Single Spark (1995), but Boo Ji-young's Cart, by being less bombastic and more relatable, serves as an timely reminder that Korea's history of injustice and political demonstration lingers on. Yet the film is never lightweight, inspiring outrage in its shocking standoffs, when middle-aged women are carted off by disguised gangsters hired to clean up the trash. Furthermore, in recent years few Korean have addressed women's rights so effectively.
This review originally appeared on Twitchfilm.com
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