South Korean independent film “I Don’t Fire Myself” is a plain but sobering social drama about one woman’s desperate struggle for her life and existence. Reminiscent of the comparable works of the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach, the movie sharply examines systemic injustices including sex discrimination and labor exploitation as calmly following her long and difficult plight, and it surely earns a little glimmer of hope and optimism in the end while never overlooking that harsh reality surrounding her and others around her.
At the beginning, we gradually gather the gloomy situation of Jeong-eun (Yoo Da-in), a female employee of a big electricity company who is recently transferred to some remote rural beach area where she was supposed to supervise a small group of subcontractors working there. Right from her first day, she is not welcomed much by these subcontractors and their manager, and the manager even harshly reminds her that there is really nothing she can do except merely occupying a desk.
It is quite apparent that the company sent Jeong-eun there just for having her quit for herself instead of firing her. Although it seems that she is a fairly good employee, she has been mistreated a lot by the company for some unspecified reason, and a brief flashback scene shows her being stuck in a very humiliating position while openly ridiculed by several obnoxious male employees.
Understandably quite bitter about her circumstance, Jeong-eun drinks every night as showing the signs of your average high-functioning alcoholic, but she does not give up nonetheless. Haunted by the sad memories of her close female colleague who tumbled into a tragic end shortly after getting fired, she is determined to find any possible way to endure this situation before she may be transferred to back to the company one year later, and that is how she later comes to volunteer to work along with the subcontractors outside.
However, not so surprisingly, those field works assigned to the subcontractors turn out to be a lot more difficult and dangerous than Jeong-eun predicted. They are frequently demanded to work on those tall transmission towers and the thin transmission lines between them, and, like many of us would, Jeong-eun is soon paralyzed by the fear of height as looking up at one of those transmission towers. While the subcontractors easily climb up and then work there as usual, she helplessly remains on the ground, and even the medication she subsequently gets does not help her much – especially when she happens to be evaluated along with the subcontractors.
Because she may actually get fired due to her low evaluation score, Jeong-eun must solve this immediate problem as soon as possible, so she comes to request some help from one of the subcontractors, who is reluctant at first but comes to accept her request as she offers some extra money for his private lesson. Although she fumbles a lot at first, she becomes more accustomed to climbing up transmission tower and working there thanks to his good teaching, and there is a lovely peaceful moment when they spend some little time together while being safely tethered to transmission lines.
The screenplay by director Lee Tae-gyeom and his co-writer Kim Ja-un thankfully does not push these two main characters into conventional romance, while focusing on a genuine sense of compassion and solidarity developing between them instead. As watching more of how much he struggles to work and survive everyday just like his colleagues, Jeong-eun comes to see more of the cruel and heartless side of the company, which constantly pushes its subcontractors into more danger and competition in the name of efficiency and profit. Although they do not get paid enough compared to their numerous occupational risks, the subcontractors cannot possibly complain because that will definitely lead to losing their jobs, and they have no choice but to do whatever the company demands them to do at any point.
After an unexpected incident happens later in the story, the movie naturally becomes more tense than before as our heroine tries to do right things, and Yoo Da-in, who previously drew my attention for her unadorned but undeniably haunting performance in “Re-Enounter” (2010), is captivating as her character firmly sticks to her belief and integrity. In addition to palpably conveying to us her character’s fear and vulnerability, Yoo also did a fine job of depicting her character’s inner strength without overemphasizing it at all, and that is the main reason why the final scene beautifully and movingly works.
In case of the other main cast members in the film, they dutifully support Yoo as required. While Oh Jung-se is solid as a man who turns out to be more compassionate than he seems at first, Kim Sang-gyoo, Kim Do-gyun, and Park Ji-hong are also convincing as the other subcontractors in the film, and the special mention goes to Choi Ja-hye, who, as another close female colleague of Jeong-eun, imbues some spirit into her two short scenes with Yoo.
On the whole, “I Don’t Fire Myself” is unforgettable for how it thoughtfully and compassionately presents social issues via its engaging story and characters, and it reminds me again of what a wonderful actress Yoo really is. It is a shame that she has not appeared in movies that often during last 10 years despite her acclaimed performance in “Re-Encounter”, but she has lost none of her talent and presence yet, and she surely gives another performance to remember here. Yes, this is a rather tough stuff indeed, but you will forget neither her nor her character after watching it.