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Samjin Company English Class (Samjin Group Yeong-aw TOEIC-ban, 삼진 그룹영어토익반)

Director – Lee Jong-pil – 2020 – South Korea – Cert. 12 – 110m

*****

Three undervalued corporate women employees investigate an environmental cover up at their company – a teaser screening from the London Korean Film Festival

1995, Korea. Three twentysomething women working in the Samjin Company are consistently undervalued. They meet up after work and swap stories about their respective departments.

Lee Ja-young (Go Ah-sung from Snowpiercer, 2013; The Host, 2006, both Bong Joon Ho) is a Girl Friday smarter than most of the male employees in her office, including her immediate superior and corporate conformist Choi Dong-soo (Cho Hyun-chul), which would probably cease to function without her. Jeong Yu-nah (Esom from Microhabitat, Jeon Go-woon, 2017) is a marketing minion constantly held back by an immediate superior who does everything they can to take credit for her ideas. Sim Bo-ram (Park Hye-su) is a maths prodigy working in the accounts department where her forward-thinking, male boss Bong Hyeon-cheol (Kim Jong-soo), against the prevailing sexist norm, is possessed of the ability to recognise talent in employees regardless of gender and treat them decently as co-workers.

Sent to clear out the old offices of the boss’ son Oh Tae-young (Baek Hyeon-jin), Lee is told by a male colleague to flush a pet goldfish down the toilet “to set it free”. Unable to carry out his instruction, she instead takes it to the nearest river where, about to pour it in, she notices lots of dead fish and a large diameter pipe outlet spouting effluent from the nearby Samjin factory. This starts her Investigating this pollution, a process into which her two company co-workers are quickly drawn. The script also makes the smart move of doing a lot more with the goldfish after this which is renamed Ram-bo and spends much time on a sill in in Bo-ram’s office.

When a company memo states that a 600 score in TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) will lead to promotion, numerous women enrol, determined to advance their careers. As our three heroines undertake their investigation, recited English class idioms like “the worm turns” and “the early bird gets the worm” begin to take on a whole new meaning (it may well be that this device works better for native English speakers than for Koreans – possibly the scriptwriter or an English language advisor on the set was shrewdly thinking of an international, English language audience when this went into the screenplay).

The whole thing has the feeling of a corporate caper about it with the suggestion that the women in their menial positions are actually far more competent than many of the men for whom they work. There are exceptions though, the stereotype being broken by Lee’s immediate superior and Bo-Ram’s boss, suggesting not only that the problem of sexism isn’t perpetrated by all men but also that there are women out there who treat people around them badly. The former is a nasty bit of work determined to block her junior’s progress up the corporate ladder and not a man but a woman. The latter is Bo-Ram’s boss who genuinely looks out for her (as becomes apparent when he retires smitten with terminal cancer and is replaced by a more typical male chauvinist pig).

The piece slots nicely into the whistleblower in a place of corporate wrongdoing genre trading on concerns about environmentalism and globalistation, the latter a nascent concern of the early nineties period in which the story is set, a time before the economic crash later in the decade (see Default, Choi Kook-Hee, 2018) and, for that matter, before the ubiquitous ownership of mobile phones.

The final reel perhaps pushes the emotional women’s equality button a little too hard in overplaying to a female audience as it briefly descends into sloganeering, beset by the problem of many Korean films of recent decades that they stretch out in an attempt to fill a two hour slot rather than pruning towards the the 96 minute average preferred in the West (which can sometimes bring its own problems of ruining films by cutting them down too much). That minor carp aside however, its view of women treated unfairly or passed over in the workplace over two decades ago is spot on while the three different women are brilliantly written by director Lee and memorably brought to life by the three charismatic stars.

Samjin Company English Class played as a teaser screening in LKFF, The London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer:

LKFF 2020 TRAILER:

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