Inspired by a real-life story, South Korean film “Another Family” is a little better than you might expect from a melodrama about family love, terminal illness, infuriating injustice, and a long, tearful struggle for justice. Although I could not help but notice several stumbles in its simple plot during my viewing, the movie delivers its urgent message in a plain but sincere way, and its fictional story indirectly but effectively reflects the sad, harsh reality at the bottom of the South Korean society which is still being continued even at this point.
When Sang-goo(Park Cheol-min) hears that his dear daughter Yoon-mi(Park Hee-jeong) gets employed by some prominent corporation, he is naturally happy and excited about that good news. Her family is too poor to get her to college, but Yoon-mi, who is about to graduate from her industrial high school, is ready to work for helping her family financially, and Sang-goo, who has supported the family as working as a taxi driver for more than 25 years, is prouder of her than ever.
Everything seems to go well for them after she leaves her dear hometown to work in a semiconductor factory, but then Sang-goo and his family gets a very bad news. Yoon-mi becomes suddenly sick, and the family is devastated to learn at the hospital that Yoon-mi is suffering from leukemia. The chance of survival is low, and all they can do for her is supporting her as much as possible while she go through difficult treatment processes.
As they are worrying about the hefty medical bill, they are visited by a guy from the human resource department of the corporation. After telling them how he and others in the company feel sorry about her illness, he offers them a considerable sum of money under several seemingly harmless conditions. Yoon-mi must leave the company because she can work no longer in the factory, and she must not apply for the certification of her illness as industrial accident.
Sang-goo and his wife Jeong-min(Yoon Yoo-seon) initially accept the money because they want to help their daughter by any means available to them, but Sang-go slowly starts to have doubts about this offer just like his daughter. When she hears from her co-workers that one of their co-workers also gets very sick, she did some search on the Internet, and she comes to realize that there have been many other factory employees who suddenly got sick for various types of serious illness including brain cancer and multiple sclerosis. Sang-goo thinks it is just a mere coincidence at first, but it becomes more apparent to him that the company is somehow responsible for his daughter’s illness, so he eventually refuses the offer after another meeting with that smarmy corporation guy who has no qualm about showing his condescending attitude to them(too bad he has no mustache to twirl, by the way).
Sadly, Yoon-mi’s illness gets worse than before, and there is a heartbreaking moment when her parents find that there is nothing they can do except watching their dear daughter going away from them. Sang-goo is determined to get his daughter’s illness recognized as industrial accident, but, to his frustration, there is almost no one willing to get involved with the case. The corporation in question, which is a thinly disguised fictional version of Samsung, is such an influential company in the South Korean society that everyone knows there is a very little chance of winning the case – and nobody wants to mess with the No.1 corporation of South Korea which has lots of strings to pull in the country.
Sang-goo finally gets a help from Nan-joo(Kim Gyoo-rie), a feisty lawyer who has been trying to help many unfortunate factory workers like Yoon-mi but has frequently been frustrated by her clients being forced into settlement with no justice for their plights. When meeting Yoon-mi and her family while she was alive, she frankly told Sang-goo that he will not have much chance of winning at the court, but she eventually works for him after Yoon-mi’s death. Through several people they come to meet, we get to know more about how unfair the corporation has been to its semiconductor factory workers who are regarded as something disposable and replaceable. While they are not allowed to have union, they are not educated or told enough about how hazardous their work environment can be due to various carcinogenic chemicals including trichloroethylene and hydrofluoric acid, and they are constantly pushed for more work because their basic wage is usually not enough for them and their families.
As they prepare for the trial, Sang-goo and Nan-joo soon face the opposition of the corporation from every direction. Although the government is technically the defendant in this case, a lawyer from the corporation is sent to take the position of the defense attorney, and the corporation is ready to do anything to win while dangling money in front of Sang-goo and others. In addition, it is difficult to prove 100% that the workers’ illness was caused by their work environment, and the corporation lawyer naturally emphasizes that point as arguing that the responsibility is not theirs but the workers’.
Months and years pass by with no sign of resolution meanwhile, and other clients who initially stood by Sang-goo like his new family start to have a growing doubt on their case. At one point, even Nan-joo, who was once furious about her clients’ decision on settlement, comes to face that she has no choice but to let her clients decide whether they should go on or not.
As his wife succinctly says to Sang-goo, someone should be crazy enough to fight against such a formidable corporation, and Sang-goo finds himself going further than expected for keeping his promise to his dead daughter – even when all seems to be lost. Park Cheol-min’s sincere performance supports the movie well even though the story becomes a little too heavy-handed at times; his scenes with Park Hee-jeong are heartfelt while rarely feeling too sappy, and he is especially poignant during his character’s emotional speech around the end of the trial. He is not a well-educated man, but his common sense tells him the company did a wrong thing to his daughter and others, and we cannot agree with him more as he plainly but succinctly points that out in front of the judges presiding over the case.
The movie, which was released as “Another Promise” at South Korean theaters in last weekend, is not without flaws. The supporting characters around Sang-goo are more or less than the narrative tools for making its points, and the story is riddled with several contrivances to pull the emotions from us. But it is an engaging drama about one serious social issue in South Korea on the whole, and the director/writer Kim Tae-yoon does not resort to cheap melodramatic tactics while not hurrying his story. The movie did not get much financial support during its difficult production, and the director and the crew managed to complete their film through online crowd funding and private investments. They also had difficulty in getting the movie shown at South Korean theaters because many multiplex theater chains were understandably reluctant about screening it – and it did not get enough attention from the media, either.
Fortunately, a considerable number of South Korean audiences went to watch the movie during the last weekend despite its small number of screens, and, thanks to the spreading word of mouth, I saw many audiences around me when I got the chance to watch it at the local theater during last evening. Personally, I am not so sure about whether the movie can bring out some change in the end, but it does its intended job fairly well, and I found myself emotionally reacting to the injustice I have heard about several times. There may be nothing much I or others can do, but I think we should not ignore it at least while thinking more about it.