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