This is not fair. After virtually exploited for their labor while not being paid enough, they are about to be driven to the edge, and this unfair treatment gets worse as they try to deal with it. Although it is sometimes heavy-handed in its uneven storytelling, South Korean film “Cart” has undeniable earnestness in its angry urgent drama about a group of helpless workers who are suddenly discarded in the name of profit, and its rather conventional drama has some painful moments which may remind of South Korean audiences of a number of infuriating recent news in their reality.
To Seon-hee (Yeom Jeong-ah), all she cares about in her life is supporting her family well. She has worked hard as one of the non-contract employees of some big supermarket chain (it is called “The Mart”, by the way), and, as shown during the opening scene, she has been recognized as a model employee for 5 years. Her direct boss emphasizes to her and her fellow non-contract employees that their hard work will be rewarded someday, and he also openly promises to Seon-hee that she will be soon promoted as a formal employee.
But we come to see that things are not as optimistic as they look on the surface. Her direct boss frequently demands Seon-hee to do overtime, and we learn later that such a demand is a usual part of the daily work of Seon-hee and others – and they do not even get properly paid for their extra work. As reflected through their small, shabby locker room somewhere inside the building, the company does not provide any convenience to its employees while always demanding more labor and service, and it sometimes feels as if the time went backward to when labor rights were frequently disregarded. At one point, one impertinent customer demands an apology from one of the employees, and that employee has to endure an humiliating moment later as she is forced by her direct boss to kneel and apologize to that customer. This may look outrageous to some of you, but I can assure you that I have heard about such disgusting incidents many times from others and media.
Seon-hee and other non-contract employees do not dare to complain about their poor work condition because they may lose their jobs, but then they get a sudden bad news on one day. Mainly because their company is about to be acquired by some other company, it was decided that non-contract workers are expendable in the upcoming takeover process, so Seon-hee and all of her colleagues are notified that they are fired, and everyone is shocked by this. Like Seon-hee, most of them are mothers with families to support, and they feel more helpless as they learn more about how disadvantageous their position has been since they started their first day at the supermarket.
Although they do not have no idea on what they should do at first, they eventually form the union with Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee) and Soon-rye (Kim Yeon-ae) as its key members. Seon-hee is reluctant to join the union at first, but then she finds herself participating more and more in her co-workers’ protest – even after a tempting deal is offered to her by the company.
Not so surprisingly, the company has no interest in any negotiation while looking down on its employees as usual. The strike gains momentum as the formal employees including Dong-joon (Kim Kang-woo) also take part in the movement after realizing how expendable they can also be, but the company is ready to do anything to defeat them, and Seon-hee and others feel more pressured day by day even when they try harder to stick together. They are arrested and incarcerated by the police although all they did was protesting for their labor rights, and then they are also attacked by a bunch of hired goons. In addition, Seon-hee and the other key members of the union are sued by the company, which is already working on creating bad images to put upon them.
While the movie works well when focusing on the social injustices it wants to emphasize, the screenplay by Kim Kyeong-chan falters at times for its several weaknesses. The subplot involved with Seon-hee’s sullen teenager son Tae-gyeong (Do Kyeong-soo) feels flat and predictable although it functions as another case of mistreatment of non-contract employee in the story, and I think the movie could have dug more into the details of the strike rather than softening its mood with typical heartwarming moments for the audiences.
The flaws in the movie are mainly compensated by its main actresses, who bring each own color to their characters under the competent direction of the director Boo Ji-young. Yeom Jeong-ah naturally holds our attention through her likable appearance, and there are a couple of good scenes in which her character bravely rises to the occasion. While Hwang Jeong-min and Cheo Woo-hee are reliable as usual in their small but crucial supporting roles, Moon Jeong-hee is also excellent as a seasoned employee who comes to face her vulnerability despite her determination, and Kim Yeong-ae always draws our attention as an old but feisty employee with no-nonsense attitude.
Although it eventually ends its story with a dramatic finale to draw some tears from the audiences, “Cart” reminds the audiences again of the bitter injustice in South Korean society before its end credits (I heard later that the movie was partially inspired by a real-life strike by non-contract supermarket employees). I have some reservation mainly due to its weak points, but it did its job mostly well as intended, and I could not help but feel angry about a lot of unfairness depicted on the screen during my viewing. It is getting harder and harder for many people nowadays, and maybe we should listen to them at least – even if we become frustrated as much as them in the end.