Samjin Company English Class (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): As they try to do the right thing

We need some healthy dose of spirit and optimism these worrisome days of COVID-19, and I am happy to report to you that South Korean comedy drama film “Samjin Company English Class” has plenty of that. While sharply recognizing the various hardships with which its three female main characters have to deal everyday, the movie cheerfully follows their risky journey for doing the right thing, and we come to root for them a lot as observing how they come to find inner strength not only from themselves but also others around them.

Set in Seoul, 1995, the movie initially shows us the daily work routines of Lee Ja-young (Go Ah-sung), Jung Yoo-na (Esom), and Park Hye-su (Shim Bo-ram), three young female office employees of a big local corporation named Samjin Company. Like many of other female office employees in the company, they are usually disregarded and overlooked by male office employees while often tasked with doing menial jobs which do not help their nascent career much, and there is a little amusing moment showing them and other female office employees competing on the fast and exact serving of several cups of coffee for their bosses and other office employees.

At least, things do not seem that bad for them and other female office employees. As the new CEO of the company emphasizes the advance into global business, learning English has become quite important for everyone in the company, and the company provides a daily English class for its female office employees, while also offering the opportunity of promotion for anyone scoring at least 600 points at the TOEIC (Test Of English for International Communication) class. Although some of them are understandably skeptical for good reasons including sexism, they all attend the class anyway, and their class scenes take me back to those good old days when I struggled to speak in English.

And then Ja-young happens to notice something suspicious on one day. She and one of her male co-workers come to a local factory of their company for handling some trivial personal business of a recently promoted executive who is incidentally the son of the company chairman, and then she happens to discover the disturbing sign of environment pollution at a nearby river. When she indirectly reports this to her direct boss, it looks like everything will be soon rectified while those local people living near the factory are going to get some compensation, but, of course, Ja-young subsequently discovers a cover-up attempt in the company, and she comes to feel quite conflicted about what she should do about that.

The situation accordingly becomes quite more serious for not only Ja-young but also Yoo-na and Bo-ram once they eventually decide to delve into this tricky matter together, but the screenplay by director/writer Lee Jong-pil continues to maintain its lightweight tone while generating some necessary gravitas in the story. As our three heroines investigate a number of figures in the company more, they come to discern that there is something more suspicious behind the supposedly simple cover-up attempt, and we accordingly get several playfully suspenseful moments including the one unfolded inside a hotel room into which they break for getting more information.

This may sound like your average Nancy Drew stuff, but the movie steadily develops its three main characters along with the story as also providing some surprise and poignancy. Ja-young, Yoo-na, and Bo-ram have each own concern and conflict as they go further in their increasingly daunting internal investigation, and they often ask themselves on what they really should do under their ongoing situation. Yes, they can just stop without looking back at all, but they still cannot ignore what is happening inside the company, even when they find themselves cornered hard against the wall later in the story.

Besides presenting these three main characters as three-dimensional human figures, the movie also did a commendable job of establishing the mood and details of Seoul during the 1990s. I could not help but amused by several authentic period details in the film, and one brief scene at a subway station reminded me of how simple the subway system in Seoul was during that time (They only had five lines, by the way). Although the supporting characters in the film are mostly broad, they are believable in their vivid office background while bringing some extra personality to the story, and that is one of the main reasons why the expected feel-good finale works.

And the movie is anchored well by the terrific trio performance from its likable three lead actresses, who are flawless in their interactions on the screen. While Go Ah-sung, who previously appeared in “A Resistance” (2019), steadily holds the middle point, Esom, who was alternatively sad and funny in “Microhabitat” (2017), has an acerbic fun with her forthright character, and Park Hye-su really surprised me for looking and feeling quite different from her irrepressible breakthrough turn in “Swing Kids” (2018).

Overall, “Samjin Company English Class” is a funny and pleasant film which is occasionally uplifting and moving as going forward along with its endearing three heroines, and I found myself caring about them more than expected at the end of their story. I must say that, considering the national economic crisis in 1997, the ending does not feel that bright and optimistic to me and many other South Korean audiences, but the movie is still entertaining in its well-balanced mix of comedy and drama, and we also appreciate it a lot for giving strong and colorful female characters to remember and cherish. Yes, girls can do anything, and they surely demonstrate that to us pretty well.

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