Cart (카트) – ★★★★☆

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

With only 3 months more service until she becomes a regular employee, supermarket cashier Seon-hee (Yeom Jeong-ah (염정아) works diligently for the position that will enable her to provide greater stability for her family. Despite the difficulties of raising wayward teenage son Tae-yeong (Do Kyeong-soo (도경수) and a young daughter (Kim Soo-an (김수안) alone, Seon-hee strives to make ends meet for them all. Yet when the supermarket officials decide to layoff all the workers in favor of cheaper labor, the mostly female staff – many of whom have worked with the company for years – are outraged. Led by fellow cashier Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and cleaner Soon-rye (Kim Yeong-ae (김영애), the women begin to unionize and issue demands for reinstatement. However when their efforts are ultimately ignored, the women decide that more drastic strike action is necessary for their voices to be heard.

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Based on a true story, director Boo Ji-young’s (부지영) Cart (카트) premiered to high acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as later back home in native Korea at Busan. The drama is an incredibly impressive exploration of the issues plaguing the temporary workforce in contemporary Korea. From the very moment Cart begins director Boo effectively portrays the grueling monotony of menial labor, employing a brilliantly washed out colour palette in conjunction with fluid camerawork that depicts workers performing machine-like tasks under the watchful eyes of aggressive management, evoking the same sensibilities as Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. Rather than individuals, the workers are consistently framed as cogs in a machine hurriedly operating the factory-esque supermarket whilst robotically repeating phrases such as, “We love you, customer!” Director Boo wonderfully juxtaposes such hard work and empty slogans with the awful humiliations dealt by the customers and executives, while the workers themselves tolerate such human rights abuses simply in order to keep their jobs.

The contrast between such scenes and the representation of the characters personal lives offer a powerful, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. As the vast majority of the workers are underprivileged women, the film depicts the daily struggles of the female workforce as they endure abusive employment in order to desperately stave off poverty, emphasising an array of feminist issues with potent insight. Director Boo has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one which is a true rarity in both current Korean and international cinema. The range of characters within the film, each with their own dilemmas, poignantly capture the challenges facing modern women in society. While Seon-hee and Hye-mi struggle to raise their children alone, Soon-rye exposes the plight of the elderly, while the inclusion of married protagonists as well as disaffected graduate Mi-jin (Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) convey the breadth and scale of discourses effecting contemporary women. Cart is a truly refreshing alternative to male-centered narratives, one that unequivocally portrays working class women as heroines in their own right.

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The power of Cart lies in the conflict between the mostly female workers and the male executives, as the unfair dismissals result in unionization, and the ignorance of which in turn spurs strike action. Director Boo structures the escalation of hostilities between both sides with skill, as the workers who stage peaceful protests with colourful clothes and slogans are confronted by the dark bullying tactics of the company. In so blatantly portraying the corruption and underhand manner of the corporation, director Boo has produced a challenging and provocative film that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers amongst the conservative upper classes, who are depicted offering bribes, employing gangsters, and hurting innocents in the bid to continue profits and to save face. Yet director Boo also implicates government agencies in the scandal, particularly the police force and their unnecessary brutality, as the women peacefully demonstrate against injustice, making Cart not only an insightful film but a courageous one too.

Cart does however suffer from a case of over ambition as too many protagonists feature, which ultimately makes it difficult to invest in all of the narrative threads that arise. All the characters certainly add a perspective on the discourses through the film, yet as there are so many tangents it’s difficult to invest in every one. Screen time is mostly ascribed to Seon-hee and her family, and an impressive contrast is made between her and her difficult son Tae-yeong, implying the conditioning of the populace as automatons as one that begins from a young age. However Tae-young’s story line, in which he becomes attached to prospective girlfriend Soo-kyeong (Ji Woo (지우), is a little trite and appears to be a device to attract teenage audiences. Scenes such as these, and others that feature the quite cheesy musical score, sometimes threaten to put Cart in TV drama territory, yet director Boo never lets the story stagnate and consistently keeps the drama moving apace.

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

Verdict:

Cart is moving, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. In depicting the unfair working conditions and the incredibly strong women attempting to stave off poverty, director Boo Ji-young has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one that examines the status of human rights and feminist issues with insight and sincerity. A powerful film, Cart is a real rarity in both contemporary Korean and international cinema.

★★★★☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014
Bodies begin mysteriously appearing in rivers, with the cause of death unknown

Deranged (연가시) – ★★★☆☆

Deranged (연가시)

Deranged (연가시)

Plagues unleashed upon a populace – often resulting in zombification – tend to be used as allegories of socio-cultural change in premiere examples of the horror genre, such as those by George A. Romero. Yet the realities of an incurable disease (sans monsters) are equally as horrific as such narratives edge ever-closer to a world that has experienced a variety of influenza pandemics. The 1995 thriller Outbreak, or more recently Steven Soderbergh’s critically acclaimed Contagion in 2011, emphasize the importance of following protocol and the cooperation of pharmaceutical companies in preserving the human race from deadly viruses. Less science-fiction, more science-fact.

Deranged (연가시) is writer/director Park Jeong-woo’s (박정우) attempt at conveying the brutal fury of a rampant epidemic on Korean soil, and he does an excellent job of ramping up the tension and suspense to convey the fear and panic of the country through one man’s attempt to save his family. While plot holes and the suspension of disbelief are occasionally distracting, the conjugation of skilled directing with the effective editing and musical score make Deranged a highly compelling and entertaining disaster film.

Suffering financial hardships due to terrible stock advice from his cop-brother Jae-pil (Kim Dong-wan (김동완), father-of-two Jae-hyeok (Kim Myeong-min (김명민) must perform all manner of services to keep his family afloat. Yet the pharmaceutical company Jae-hyeok works for has been reduced to little more than an administrative branch, and with little room for promotion and bills mounting, the pressure is becoming intense. As news reports begin broadcasting the mysterious deaths of people throughout the country, the authorities are at a loss to explain the phenomenon – what is known, however, are that the victims suffer an unquenchable thirst before death. As the affliction spreads akin to an epidemic, Jae-hyeok begins noticing the symptoms of the illness within his family, forcing him and Jae-pil to set aside their differences and race against time to find a cure before it’s too late.

Bodies begin mysteriously appearing in rivers, with the cause of death unknown

Bodies begin mysteriously appearing in rivers, with the cause of death unknown

Deranged is largely a success due to the well-balanced script, which focuses on the characterisation of those affected whilst never losing sight of the national scale of the event. In depicting scenes of government officials and scientists scrambling to do something – anything – to halt the spread of the epidemic and generally making terrible decisions, writer/director Park Jeong-woo consistently places the ramifications of such verdicts on the nuclear family at the center of the narrative, intelligently constructing reasons for deviating away from the central protagonists yet providing further impetus. As such, the removal of cell phones from the infected to halt criticism on social networks may well be in the government’s favour, but the lack of communication with loved ones makes the situation unbearably intense and emotional for those afflicted. Park Jeong-woo also never allows the stakes to be forgotten, skillfully constructing horrific sequences of mass suicide as well as more intimate  individual death scenes, wonderfully edited to provide riveting-but-brief glimpses of the horror yet still allows enough mystery to compel audiences for more.

Such sequences would be meaningless without the attention bestowed upon Jae-hyeok, his wife Kyeong-soon (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and their two children. Jae-hyeok is, at least initially, an unlikeable protagonist as he continually praises those taking advantage of his financial situation yet vents his frustrations on his innocent family. However as the situation escalates the universal theme of a father desperately attempting to protect his family is fully exploited, and as such his character flaws tend to fall to the wayside. While somewhat limited in the role of wife and mother, Kyeong-soon also personifies the protective mother and her inner conflict of desire vs. responsibility is equally as compelling as Jae-hyeok’s race against time.

What makes Deranged stand out against other examples of the genre is the social commentary, which is equal parts subtle and heavy-handed. As is usually the case, money and greed are vital issues within the narrative both at personal and governmental levels; however what is interesting about Deranged is the way in which it is linked to suicide. It is no secret that Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, yet it’s a social theme that is rarely interrogated cinematically. With Deranged, director Park Jeong-woo specifically links money with suicide, squarely positioning capitalist greed and the desire for commodities as the source of horror in Korean society. Sequences in which the populace race desperately to kill themselves are as horrifying as they are senseless, with the anguish of those attempting to stop them keenly felt. The epidemic, the director posits, is greed.

Jae-hyeok's wife and children begin exhibiting the signs of the illness

Jae-hyeok’s wife and children begin exhibiting the signs of the illness

In terms of performance, Kim Myeong-min as financially-challenged Jae-hyeok is very much the center of the film. He is an ‘action hero father’, a man willing to do everything to save his family whether from monetary woes or the sweeping epidemic. What he seemingly can’t do is show affection to his family, making the protagonist quite unfavourable particularly in the first act. Kim Myeong-min is highly competent in conveying such frustrations throughout, from his subservient role with superiors to venting annoyance to family and friends, however his rather unemotional behaviour with wife Kyeong-soon detracts from the urgency his mission as family saviour should contain.

Ironically it is Jae-hyeok’s long-suffering wife, played by Moon Jeong-hee, that provides the heart of the film due to her close relationship with the children and her internal conflict of being strong for their sake. While she occasionally slightly overacts, Moon Jeon-hee’s emotive style of acting contributes greatly to convey the severity of events and provides a much greater sense of the importance of love than her co-star. In many respects, it is Moon Jeong-hee’s performance that not only conveys the morality of the narrative but is also the most prominent in the film.

As cop Jae-pil, and his scientist wife Yeon-joo, Kim Dong-wan (김동완) and Lee Honey (이하늬) perform competently despite their secondary supporting roles. They seem to exist within the film largely to allow the narrative to explore the proceedings within law enforcement and laboratories, acting as a moral compass within each institution that is heard but ignored. As such they are highly effective in providing information and outrage in equal measure, as well as in halting contrivances that would glaringly exist without their inclusion. Although somewhat limited, each actor performs well and help to spur the narrative forward at a thrilling pace.

Jae-hyeok must overcome all manner of obstacles - including the panic-stricken public - to save his family

Jae-hyeok must overcome all manner of obstacles – including the panic-stricken public – to save his family

Verdict:

A compelling and highly entertaining science-fiction/horror blend, Deranged is a success due to the emphasis on characterisation and a fear that is much more based in reality than imagination. While certain plot holes appear, the directing, editing and musical score combine to produce a great thriller underpinned by a keen socio-cultural message, making  Deranged one of the better disaster films to emerge from the Korean film industry.

★★★☆☆

 

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