Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 19, 2021 12:12 pm 
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LEE JONG-PIL: SAMJIN COMPANY ENGLISH CLASS 삼진그룹 영어토익반 (2020) - 2021 New York Asian Film FEstival


Women crusading against corporate corruption (sort of)

Samjin Company English Class adopts an entertaining style to present an edifying story. Given the enthusiastic audience response and the enjoyable ensemble performances, it may seem ill humored to point out that its charm undercuts the movie's intended serious message. Erin Brockovich, which has been mentioned as a comparison, has a light side too, but it's pretty serious, and its focus on a single person's intensive crusade is different, because Samjin's crusaders are three low-level women employees. One focus is how a company corruptly covers up pollution that's killing people. Another is on the repression of women workers in Korea. The setting, accordingly, is 1995. The implication is that things have gotten better.

Personality-plus Lee Ja-young (Ko Asung), Jung Yoo-na (Esom) and little math whiz Sim Bo-ram (Hye-soo Park) are friends and co-workers at Samjin Company. They are (only) high school graduates, and, putatively for that reason, after eight years they're underlings in the office, still buying cigarettes, making coffee, and helping men find their files or fire up their computers. They wear matching outfits, by the way, like schoolgirls. Probably they know more than the men who treat them like servants, but they're stuck. An opening has appeared, because it's been announced that a score of 600 on the Toeic English test will get them a promotion to assistant manager.

Somebody has been gifted a tropical fish in a bowl. Lee Ja-young takes it out to the country to release it into a stream - and then sees the stream is full of dead fish, and a large pipe is emitting waste into the water. All the action follows from here. An investigation; agreements signed by locals to accept nominal compensation; falsification of the report; shredding of the original report (by a low-ranking man) is ordered. Eventually, nonetheless, the ladies win. There's a plot twist to accomplish this. The whole catastrophe has been used as a way to enable purchase and incorporation of the company by an international firm. This is the trio's wedge, because they organize the shareholders against the corrupt administration.

A small cadre of evil Americans make up the baddies of the piece, by the way, which leads to a typically spicy "Letterboxd" comment (from Júlia Falcão): "the way Koreans always hire the worst ever white actors to play all the white characters... iconic." The English teacher (Tyler Rasch) is loud and specific in his constant off-the-wall instruction consisting of company slogans or alleged sayings included on previous Toeic Tests. He is sad because he is an illustration of how bad English classes can be; and whenever the women say something in English, I can't make out a word (Koreans would get subtitles, but we don't). More inexplicable is the unxious, tall, allegedly "handsome" company "President" Billy (David Lee McInnis, an actor living and working in South Korea), who understands Korean but replies nearly always in English. Two Americans are nondescript, thuggish heavies in the background manipulating things for upper management. There is also John D. Michaels, apparently another American actor living in Korea, as the "MIT" Global Capital Executive.

All this is part of a needlessly complicated plot that provides many evil high company officials when one or two would have done better. Likewise the hurried scheme to undermine global capital's effort to take over the company substitutes complication for believability. Erin Brockovich, with Julia Roberts' gratuitous cleavage and Steven Soderbergh's disappointingly (after all the hype) merely workmanlike direction, is hardly a model of filmmaking subtlety and complexity, but it does give the sense of depicting real events, whereas Samjin Company English Class is more an eye-popping, momentarily distracting cinematic twittering machine, which leaves one unsatisfied and perhaps a little confused. It is slick, entertaining, and in parts, in its way, well acted. The three central ladies never cease to be watchable and charming. But this is not a good movie. Maybe the younger Korean audience learns something from it about women at the workplace before they were born. Let's hope so. And let's hope it's better now.

Samjin Company English Class 삼진그룹 영어토익반, 110 mins., has released between Oct. 2020 and July 2021 in South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. Screened for this review as part of the Aug. 6-22, 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (shceduled for Aug. 14, 2021).

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