Media Mix, July 24, 2021

Satoyama area

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about some of the root causes of the killer mudslide that hit Atami on July 3. As Shukan Asahi pointed out, this sort of disaster is bound to happen again, and not just because climate change is intensifying rainfall. Japan doesn’t really have an effective forest management policy, and even if it did, there doesn’t seem to be enough trained people to carry it out. Traditionally, the concept known as “satoyama,” wherein rural areas, mainly surrounding farmland, were kept tidy by residents, helped forests thrive, but since World War II, during which so much of the archipelago’s trees were cut down for the war effort and then replanted with fast-growing cedar, the forests have mostly fallen into disrepair. Now that wood for construction is commanding a good price, lots of timber companies are cutting down trees, but many are doing it illegally, which isn’t difficult. Part of the forest management problem is that ownership of forested land isn’t clear. Property owners are supposed to maintain their forests by cleaning out undergrowth and removing dead trees, but, as with so much land in Japan, many have died over the years and their heirs have neglected the properties. Timber companies take advantage of this by going into a remote forests and clear cutting, often without anybody knowing about it, but they can only clear cut in areas that have some kind of road access, so sometimes they get found out by local residents. I remember once reading about loggers getting caught in the act and then pretending that they made a mistake, that they were on the wrong tract of land and then just disappeared. Since no one could find the owner of the land, nothing was done, and this seems to be a big part of the problem. Before the government can devise effective forest management regulations it has to be able to enforce them, and if it can’t find land owners then it can’t do anything, unless it wants to just take over the land. Given how hesitant Japan is when it comes to eminent domain, I doubt that will happen. Though rain is what causes mudslides, in a way it’s good that Japan is a wet country. Clear-cutting is bad for watersheds and leads to more landslides, but overgrown, unmaintained forests tend to catch fire more easily in dry weather. 

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Review: Plan A

Having been pleasantly surprised by the 2018 German-Israeli co-production The Cakemaker, I was looking forward to Plan A, another German-Israeli co-production. The Cakemaker had explored the still difficult relationship between the two countries but on an intimate scale and in modern-day Israel. Plan A, however, is a historical film that gets to the heart of that difficult relationship by recreating, at least in part, a true story related to the Holocaust: Following the liberation of the camps in 1945, a group of survivors work together secretly on a scheme to poison the Berlin water supply as an act of revenge. Not much of this story is presented in an intimate fashion, and in the end, while the movie, directed by brothers Doron and Yoav Paz, is competent and often quite suspenseful, the shifting moral certitudes among the characters becomes something of a chore: Will they or won’t they? gives way to a nagging sense that it’s very doubtful that it all went down in this way.

For one thing, the movie is almost all in English, thus giving the whole production the quality of a fantasy. It opens with a voiceover challenge: “Just imagine that your entire family was murdered,” the idea being that the viewer must put themselves in the position of many of these conspirators, who feel justified in killing as much of the civilian population of Berlin in retaliation for what the Germans did to the Jews, even though many of the victims will not be Germans but also members of allied forces and even other surviving Jews. This caveat will be repeated throughout the action that unfolds to diminishing effect, mainly because the focus is on action for action’s sake, though obviously the filmmakers want to say something about the nature of revenge. That their message is confused and muddled may indicate that too many people with too many conflicting ideas were involved.

In addition to the plotters, there is a contingent of Jews who are dedicated to the idea of relocating to Palestine, where fighting is already under way between underground Zionist factions and non-Jewish residents, and for a while the contrast and conflict between these two groups is compelling, but the exposition is stiff and anecdotal, and you lose sight of the larger historical context. It becomes a drama about individual character, but except for the protagonist (August Diehl), a Jewish civil engineer who, in the chaos after surrender, has been given access to the city’s water works, the characters themselves are so simplistic that they never come through as people, only figures to put across the plot and the themes, some of which—could the Jews have done more to resist their extermination; how could any Jew trust the West to let them have their own country?—are worth discussing. And in the end, the practical argument against the plot—that if they indiscriminately kill civilians, the West won’t give them Israel—ends up overshadowing the moral argument against it. In truth, if the movie were a complete fiction, it might at least stand on its own as entertainment, but it keeps reminding us that Israel came into being and was thus the best revenge possible. That’s not how history works. 

In English and German. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670). 

Plan A home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Getaway Pictures GmbH & Jooyaa Film GmbH, UCM United Channels Movies, Phiphen Pictures, cine plus, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Sky, Arte

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Review: Last and First Men

The late Icelandic film composer Johann Johannsson amassed an admirably ecelctic body of soundtrack work that ranged from Hollywood potboilers to pure art cinema, and the posthumously released Last and First Men is the only film he directed. The score is impressive, but while watching the film the music isn’t the thing you pay attention to. Overall, this 70-minute movie is even more minimalist in design than his music, which normally combines orchestral compositions with electronic filigree and loops. In that regard, one can see Johannsson’s sensibility more clearly here, since, like his music, the visual and verbal elements are hybridized. The theme, in fact, has already been noted as perhaps a variation on the ideas presented in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, for which Johannsson wrote the score. But it’s very, very different.

The clinically precise narration, in English, is taken directly from a book of the same name by early 20th century philosopher Olaf Stapledon, which comprises a message to 20th century civilization from 200 million years into the future by a generation of humanity that is facing annihilation due to the self-implosion of the sun. Reportedly, the book, published in 1930, inspired Arthur C. Clarke to write the short story that was eventually adapted as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but its apocalyptic pronouncements are stripped of all sentimentality. In fact, thanks to Tilda Swinton’s clinically precise voiceover, it is sometimes difficult to follow the musings on 2 billion years of human endeavor that these future beings try to elucidate. It’s been said that many filmmakers have pondered a movie version of the book, and you can see why they gave up. 

But that doesn’t seem to be Johannsson’s purpose anyway. His visuals are mostly static black-and-whit images of brutalist monuments that are meant to illustrate the way humanity has attempted to leave its mark on eternity. In truth, the sculptures were commissioned by the post-communist Yugoslavian leader Tito. They are scattered throughout Eastern Europe as an affront to socialist realism, abstract in the most hackneyed way in that they represent nothing except their unnaturalness in natural settings. (Harper’s magazine recently ran an article about how these monuments have become very popular tourist attractions, though it has nothing to do with this movie.) The program notes suggest Johannsson was always fascinated by mankind’s striving for utopia, and the visual, narrative, and musical elements do combine to render a kind of horrible, material millennialism, except that there is no religious component. Stapledon, supposedly, was so traumatized by the cruelty of the first half of the 20th century that all he could think about was the far future, and this film certainly feels like an attempt to come to grips with a mindset that can only be imagined. Film may not be the ideal medium for the “work” (apparently, it is supposed to be peformed in concert form with live musicians and a narrator), but even as an experiment it is scary and haunting. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Last and First Men home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Zik Zak Filmworks/Johann Johannsson

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Media Mix, July 17, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the media’s, and the authorities’, attitude toward public protest. Generally speaking, the police see their job as maintaining order rather than safeguarding free speech, so the inconsistency that I describe is perhaps best explained in that way. It’s not so much that the police themselves have a political agenda, though some very well may. As it happens, the art exhibition cited in the column did take place starting this weekend in Osaka, though only for three days, and reportedly the organizers received several messages from people opposed to the exhibition that implied they might attack the venue and its visitors. Unlike some organizers of this and similar events, the one in Osaka did not cancel the exhibition for safety reasons, and the police presumably were on hand to make sure nothing terrible happened. In this case, the police could be seen as defending the organizer’s free speech rights, but mainly they were just keeping order. 

The right to free speech seems to be determined by circumstances. The president of the distribution company cited in the column says the right wing groups that tried to shut down his movie by parking outside the theater and blasting complaints were violating his right to free speech. Meanwhile, the police were on hand to make sure that the right wing group didn’t go beyond loudspeakers in their protests, so in a way you could say they were protecting the right wing group’s right to free speech. Are they both correct? Are they both wrong? It’s not an easy question to answer, but given that the right wing group’s purpose was to disrupt the theater’s business, you could say they were breaking the law, since there is a law in Japan against interfering with a person or group’s right to carry out business. And it doesn’t even have to be a commercial enterprise. Several weeks ago I wrote about the entomologist in Okinawa who was raided by the police for leaving trash outside the gate of a U.S. military installation in protest. The police said she broke the law by interfering with the installation’s business. So why do the police normally allow sound trucks to park outside of addresses of people or groups they disagree with and blast insults and music in a bid to disrupt their activities? That would seem to be against the letter of the law. My guess is not that the police are safeguarding those groups’ right to free speech, but rather that they are bending the law in order to avoid worse trouble, meaning violence. In any case, such tactics by right wing groups would seem to violate some kind of ordinance to limit loud noises, but maybe not. During political campaigns everyone has to put up with sound trucks circulating through their neighborhoods blasting the names of candidates. Defending free speech or the right to carry out one’s business without interference doesn’t seem to be the point. The point seems to be to tolerate bad behavior in order to avoid something worse.

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Review: Jallikattu

Though India has always flourished as a prime source of original films, most of the world still only thinks of Bollywood. In fact, there are myriad subdivisions of Indian cinema depending on region and language that have achieved their own industry-level importance and which are finally being exposed to the rest of the world. Jallikattu is the seventh feature by director Lijo Jose Pellissery, whose work is predominantly done in the Malayalam language and set in the state of Kerala. Though his films cover a wide range of genres, they almost always contain violence in a way that not only provides a visceral thrill but comments on the basic primitive nature of man, and by “man” he means male human beings.

Jallikattu may not necessarily be his most characteristic work, but given the reception it received at the Toronto International Film Festival, it is certainly his most well-known outside of India. Unabashedly an action film, Jallikattu (the word describes a local sport involving bull-riding) almost demands a certain amount of knowledge of the cultural mores of the milieu in which it is set for the movie to make sense even as a thriller, but it’s so relentlessly forward-moving that the viewer gets caught up in the kinetic energy and basically absorbs Pellissery’s notion of how male violence intensifies under a specific set of circumstances. The action is set off by a bull that is being prepared for slaughter by a village butcher. The bull escapes into the jungle and reports from outside the village soon indicate that the bull is destroying crops and even structures. The men of the village decide to hunt the bull in order to capture or kill it, which sets off a series of competitive rivalries that, on the surface, represent macho posing but reveal deep-set antagonisms related to class and position within the village. 

The men thus become the thing they are hunting, i.e., single-minded beings whose frustrations feed on themselves, turning them all into raging beasts. The action of chasing the bull as it rampages through homes and markets, destroying everything in its path, is mirrored by a dozen subplots showing how the men of the village destroy the lives of their women with their unchecked privilege, poison the well of community with selfish ambition, and generally have no control over their emotions because everything to them is a game for power. It gets to the point where the hunters’ zeal in capturing the bull is channeled into destroying those for whom they have always harbored resentments. 

Along the way, the uneducated viewer realizes some interesting things if they hadn’t known them already: that butchering cattle is illegal here and done in the shadows (it’s why the police won’t get involved in the hunt); that alcohol is as much of a social scourge in this nominally religious community as it is anywhere else; that arranged marriage is a tool of the patriarchy. But even with the pointed social critiques, the operative concept here is action, and the movie never lets up in its incessant rush to an apocalyptic climax that is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. 

In Malayalam. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum, Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Jallikattu home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Jallikattu

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Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Regardless of the moral or religious arguments wielded by pro-life activists, there is one truth they cannot deny: Even if abortion is outlawed, pregnant women who don’t want to give birth will try to find ways to rid themselves of their fetuses. Eliza Hittman’s film takes that truth as its guiding premise and everything about it, from its clinical exploration of the abortion seeking process to the way the story makes the sexual dynamic for adolescents specific, focuses the viewer’s attention on the unwavering will behind the protagonist’s quest. In fact, the choice of setting the opening scene at a high school talent show with a 1950s theme might feel like a bad joke in any other movie, but in this one it immediately conveys the idea that matters haven’t really changed for American teenagers in fifty years. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) stands alone on stage with a guitar singing the 1963 hit “He Got the Power” while one boy in the audience yells “slut!” She sulks off the stage to desultory applause.

Things are not better at home. Autumn’s step-father (Ryan Eggold) complains about her depressive attitude, which her mother (Sharon Van Etten) picks up on but cannot fathom. Autumn eventually summons the wherewithal to go to the Planned Parenthood clinic in her small working class Pennsylvania town, where she discovers that she is, in fact, pregnant. Her decision to terminate the pregnancy is not discussed with anyone, nor does Hittman give any indication that Autumn mulls it over. It is a foregone conclusion, and after a disturbing instance of attempted self-harm she starts looking for ways to get an abortion. In Pennsylvania, however, a minor must have the permission of a parent or guardian, and Autumn is loath to tell anyone of her predicament. The only person she can confide in is her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), with whom she works part-time at a supermarket where the manager makes sexually suggestive comments as a matter of course. Because of Autumn’s singular determination, Skylar offers to go with her to New York, where it is assumed an abortion is easy to obtain, and after the pair raid the cash register they hop a bus.

Though some will label Never Rarely Sometimes Always (the title refers to the multiple choice questionnaire that abortion patients must fill out regarding their sexual histories) a road movie, it also has that surreal quality of a memory of an overwhelming experience that happened so long ago. To say that neither Autumn nor Skylar is prepared for not only New York but the tribulations involved in getting a difficult medical procedure with insufficient funds and knowledge is a vast understatement. Hittman’s presentation of Autumn’s doggedness in pursuit of her goal is so single-minded as to be scary in and of itself, despite the fact that the people they meet are, for the most part, good. Even the college kid (Theodore Pellerin) who hits on Skylar on the bus and whom they later hit up in turn for help to survive their night in the city and get back home is sincere in his sympathy, even if he demands some kind of sexual gratification in return. Never Rarely Sometimes Always has an extremely simple premise, but its complications in terms of social themes and emotional resonance are too numerous to catalogue. By laying out that incontrovertible truth about the abortion question, the movie actually transcends it. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Cine Quinto Shibuya (03-3477-5905).

Never Rarely Sometimes Always home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Focus Features LLC

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Review: Better Days

Now that China has effectively exercised its mandate over Hong Kong and all that entails in terms of freedoms for the former British territory, it remains to be seen how independent of party influence the city’s famously independent film industry will remain. Derek Tsang’s Better Days is being touted as a kind of test case. Though a typical Asian youth drama, it was pulled from the schedule of the Berlin Film Festival in 2019 by Chinese authorities, which later cancelled its theatrical release, though the movie finally opened in theaters at the end of the year. These factors probably had something to do with its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film; that and the notion that, a year after Parasite won big, the Academy probably thinks it has to recognize at least one Asian film a year from now on (Minari didn’t really count). Generally speaking, the movie’s buzz is more intriguing that the movie itself.

Apparently, what pissed off the Chinese censors was Tsang’s portrayal of school bullying, which is pretty brutal, as well as the national university entrance text process, which comes off as slightly less distressing than a season in hell. These are hardly original subjects, especially in Asian coming-of-age films, but now that China has its hooks in Hong Kong the authorities probably think it’s best to get people prepared for lowered ambitions. In any case, the story is based on a novel set in 2011 and focused on a student named Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu), who, like everybody else, is cramming miserably for the exam. When her study mate commits suicide, the police center their investigation on Chen, who knows that her friend was being bullied by a clique of girls. These girls now redirect their malevolence toward her in order to keep her quiet. 

One night while trying to evade her tormentors, Chen happens upon small-time hood Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), who is himself being beaten up by his betters. When she tries to intervene the thugs humiliate her, but the incident gives her common cause with Xiao. At school, the bullying escalates to physical violence and threats against Chen’s family owing to the fact that, in order to corner the “queen bee” bully, the police lie and tell her that Chen has already fingered her as the dead girl’s tormentor. The bullies are suspended and, naturally, come after Chen one night with box cutters and a cage full of rats. She seeks sanctuary with Xiao and asks him to be her protector until she takes the exam, and from then on he shadows her wherever she goes. They become close, and one night while being questioned by police, Chen is attacked by the bullies who beat her mercilessly and cut off her hair.

Tsang’s command of tone is impressive, and he juggles the various story lines adeptly until the thriller plot points that drive the second half shove the film into a mire of implausibility whose excuse is that it is meant to be heartbreaking. As with most youth movies of its ilk, the romance is chaste and the sins of the fathers (and mothers) explain everything about the mess that these young people now have to navigate, though Tsang doesn’t hold anything back in his condemnation of societal rot. It’s not clear what kind of future he has in such an environment, but he’s already mastered the art of stylish youthful melodrama.

In Cantonese. Opens July 16 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

Better Days home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Shooting Pictures Ltd., China (Shenzhen) Wit Media Co., Ltd., Tianjin XIRON Entertainment Co., Ltd., We Pictures Ltd., Kashi J.Q. Culture and Media Company Limited, The Alliance of Gods Pictures (Tianjin) Co., Ltd., Shanghai Alibaba Pictures Co., Ltd., Tianjin Maoyan Weying Media Co., Ltd., Lianray Pictures, Local Entertainment, Yunyan Pictures, Beijing Jin Yi Jia Yi Film Distribution Co., Ltd., Dadi Century (Beijing) Co., Ltd., Zhejiang Hengdian Films Co., Ltd., Fat Kids Production, Goodfellas Pictures Limited

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Media Mix, July 10, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about how the press moved away from talking about public opposition to the Olympics as it became clear that the powers that be would hold them regardless of how the pandemic developed. Since I wrote the column, the situation has changed even more. It’s no longer a question of how many spectators would be allowed to watch the events. Now, apparently, there will be no spectators except those associated with the IOC and the local organizers. Obviously, the press can’t avoid covering that aspect, but, again, what’s most important is avoiding the impression that the games are still very unpopular right now. Next week’s column will be about, in part, protests against the Olympics, which the press is covering in such a way as to make it seem like a fringe thing. Yesterday, on his VideoNews web talk show, journalist Tetsuo Jimbo said that a civic group filed a lawsuit on Thursday to stop the Olympics, and the only mention of it I can find so far is from Kyodo.

What needs to be stressed is that the public’s opinion is, as Heizo Takenaka so stridently claimed, not important; or, at least, not important to the people who came up with the idea of hosting the Olympics and then promoting it once Tokyo was selected. No one asked the people of Tokyo if they wanted to be a host city, and while some will wave this concern away in the belief that everybody loves the Olympics, other cities have attempted to gauge public opinion on the matter and some cancelled their plans to bid for the games after it became clear there was little or no public support. As costs have skyrocketed over the years, placing a heavier burden not only on Tokyo residents but likely Japanese taxpayers, the ill feelings have just intensified. We are now actually facing the worst case scenario—not cancelling the games, but holding them behind closed doors in an environment where such an endeavor could very well cause an explosion of illness. For anyone in Japan still looking forward to the events, they will have to watch them on TV just like the rest of the world. There’s absolutely no benefit for Japan or Tokyo to hosting the Olympics, except maybe some vague sense of pride. But pride for what? Having made it to the point of being able to hold the Olympics without as many people dying as did in the U.S. or India? I suppose that’s something, but cold comfort to the people of Tokyo, who can’t even go out for a drink while the games are taking place.

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Review: The Mole Agent

It feels like cheating to label the Chilean movie The Mole Agent a documentary. Though we are informed right at the start of the premise of the investigation being recorded, there’s such an overriding sense of calculated setup that the viewer is constantly checking their own capacity for suspension of disbelief. Everything, from the camera work to the development of the narrative, is perfectly calibrated to what we expect from a good detective story, and the peculiar genius of Maite Alberdi’s direction is the way it masks its cleverness: Was it designed to be like this, or did everything just fall into place of its own accord?

Granted, there isn’t a lot of danger involved in the enterprise. A private detective named Romulo Aitken is hired by a woman who thinks her elderly mother is being abused by the staff of the nursing home where she lives. Unable to get anywhere by directly confronting the nursing home, Aitken advertises for a mole, an old man who will be surreptiously enrolled in the nursing home to work undercover to reveal abuse. He auditions candidates and chooses Sergio, a pretty genki 83-year-old without a cynical bone in his body, which makes him, at first, an unlikely sleuth. He’s securely ensconced in the home thanks to his own daughter, who’s in on the scheme and makes the necessary request for care. Aitken equips Sergio with a smartphone and even special spy glasses linked to a camera app. However, the old man doesn’t seem to have much use for these tricks of the trade, and takes a more journalistic approach to the assignment, asking staff directly about their treatment of the residents as well as residents about their experiences. 

All of this is meticulously recorded by Alberdi’s crew, who tell the home that they are making a documentary about old age in general and seem to have all the freedom in the world to hang around Sergio while he does his job. That no one found this aspect of the project suspicious automatically tips the viewer off to one very likely truth: That nothing particularly untoward is going on at the nursing home. People who are suspicious, after all, are those who themselve have something to hide. As far as the movie’s own sense of mystery goes, Sergio at first has trouble locating the supposed victim of abuse, Sonia, because most of the residents are elderly women, and a good portion of them don’t socialize. But those who do automatically attach themselves to Sergio, who becomes the star of the place for obvious reasons: He’s a man, he possesses all his faculties, and he’s more charming than Cary Grant. This aspect complicates his job, since he’s always being pursued by one or more widow who would like nothing better than to spend her remaining days in this place with Sergio.

Alberdi enhances the espionage component of the movie by playing up the communications between Sergio and Aitken, which actually read more like literary dispatches than coded messages, as well as the secret videos he takes with his spy glasses. The fact that these portions of the film inadvertently show up what a pleasant place the nursing home is and how happy most of the residents are conveys, way ahead of time, that there may not be much to the client’s charge that terrible things are going on within, but as they say, it’s the trip, not the destination. 

In Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Cinema Qualite Shinjuku (03-3352-5645).

The Mole Agent home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Dogwoof Ltd.

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Review: Samjin Company English Class

As the Korean Wave has brought greater attention to South Korean movies and TV dramas, differences must surely have become obvious. Korean cinema maintains fairly high production values across the board while varying greatly in tone and style, depending on the genre depicted. TV dramas are, for the most part, fairly uniform in tone and style, and even adhere to uniform structural templates, such as previews and ending theme songs. The idea is to appeal to as large a cross-section of the public as possible. In that regard, Samjin Company English Class feels more like a TV drama in that it gets very broad in terms of acting and melodramatic plot points. Where it succeeds as a movie is the way it focuses on its story for maximum efficiency.

Essentially a social comedy, the film is set in 1995 when the Korean economy was at its headiest. This situation is characterized by a boom in English language classes at Korean companies, which would often peg promotions to good results on the TOEIC test. For women employees, it was a particularly important means of getting ahead, since relatively few had graduated from university. The three protagonists of Samjin are high school graduates whose main tasks are custodial or secretarial, even though they betray native intelligence that often save their male superiors a lot of grief. The uniformed trio—Ja-young (Go Ah-sung), who works in product management; Yuna (Esom), assigned to marketing; and Bo-ram (Park Hye-soo), a champion math whiz who practically runs the accounting department, which relies mainly on doctoring expense receipts—sign up for in-company English classes thinking it’s the only way they will ever rise above their present positions. 

Director Lee Jong-pil addresses this aspect with both nostalgia and humor, but he understands that in 2021 he must focus on the inherent unfairness of it all and makes sure the misogyny on display is pointed and clear. Consequently, when the mystery aspect of the movie takes over, it may feel like gilding the lily, an attempt to add relevance to a film whose critical tone is best handled through jokes. But, as it often turns out in Korean movies, the mystery is pretty good, and, as a result, the social criticism makes more of an impression.

Ja-young, the most enterprising of our three heroes, discovers that one of Samjin’s electronics factories is dumping deadly chemicals into a river that passes through farmland. Through subterfuge she brings the matter to the attention of both the local village head and the responsible people in her own company, and what seems like a tidy settlement is distributed to the affected farmers with a promise that Samjim will stop polluting. (The implication is that it was a one-off mistake.) But eventually Ja-young realizes that the pollution problem goes much deeper and recruits her two mates to help her find out the truth, which turns out to be much more complicated than anyone could imagine, involving an M&A buyout from an American fund and dire consequences for everyone in the company, even management.

As with Korean TV dramas, many of the characters here are caricatures, the most egregious being foreigners whose stereotyped portrayals are exacerbated by amateurish performances. Perhaps more off-putting is the overall theme that, while corporate life is invariably soul-crushing, people constitutionally want to be part of a group that works together for the betterment of the group, and so rather than be discouraged by their lot in life as females in a male-dominated society and trying to make society better (or bailing completely–another use, according to Yuna, for English is to get out of Korea and find a rich foreign husband), our three protagonists would prefer to make Samjin better, or, at least, more productive, because it’s what they know right now. And while I acknowledge that that’s a laudable take on the matter, it’s also a slightly dispiriting one given the current state of Korean corporatism. I’m not too sure how much things have progressed since 1995.

In Korean and English. Opens today in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Samjin Company English Class home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Lotte Entertainment & The Lamp

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