South Korean animation film “Chun Tae-il” is a plain but sincere presentation of one young real-life laborer who came to bring more public attention to workers’ rights via his tragic early death. As a guy who does not know that much about him and his life, I have no idea on how much the story is actually close to his real life story, but I could not help but feel touched by several simple but undeniably powerful moments in the film during my viewing, and I subsequently came to reflect more on how his social cause is still quite relevant in the South Korean society even though more than 50 years have passed since his death.
At the beginning, the story shows us the early life period of Chun Tae-il (voiced by Jang Dong-yoon) in Daegu, South Korea around the early 1960s. We initially see Tae-il having a good time along with his younger siblings during one bright afternoon, but he and his family soon come to have a very hard time due to his father’s unfortunate business failure, and he goes to Seoul along with his father and younger siblings not long after his mother suddenly leaves them without any word.
Anyway, Tae-il works very hard during next several years for himself as well as his family, and then things slowly get a bit better for them. His mother returns after Tae-il accidentally comes across her on a street on one day, and Tae-il is certainly glad to see his parents and younger siblings living together as before, even though they are still quite poor as living in a shabby neighborhood full of wooden makeshift houses. In addition, he is recently employed in one of many small clothing factories in Seoul, and it looks like everything will go well for him and his family as long as he keeps working hard as usual besides following whatever is ordered by his new boss.
When he is later promoted to the position where he should supervise and control several other workers in the factory, Tae-il is willing to try his best as a mediator between the other workers and his boss, but he soon becomes quite conflicted as being more aware of how grueling and difficult their work environment is in many aspects. Their factory is virtually a stuffy sweatshop where workers’ welfare and health are thoroughly disregarded everyday, and Tae-il tries to help and encourage his fellow workers as much as possible, but then he is reminded again of how unfairly he and other workers have been treated by their employer. Although they are frequently demanded to work longer and harder, they get paid less and less just because their employer has some financial loss, and Tae-il soon comes to feel that he must do something for not only his colleagues but also many other laborers out there.
Of course, as a young dude who did not have much school education, Tae-il does not know what to do at first, but there comes one accidental moment of enlightenment. After coming to learn from his father that there are actually the laws associated with workers’ rights, he immediately starts to delve into these labor laws for learning more about how much workers’ rights are actually guaranteed by the government, and he subsequently becomes much more active about doing what is right for him and others according to his enlightened viewpoint.
However, not so surprisingly, his sincere efforts for workers’ rights only leads to more doubt and frustration. During that time, workers’ rights were the last thing to be considered by the South Korean government as relentlessly pushing millions of workers more and more for rapid economic advance, and those rich businessmen gladly went along with that as frequently exploiting their laborers. Shortly after he submits his petition to the Ministry of Labor, Tae-il is fired for causing too much trouble, and that is followed by a brief period during which he muses more on whether his cause is still worthwhile to follow.
In the end, Tae-il decides that he really should fight harder against the power that be, and the last act of the story focuses on how he and his several colleagues come to clash against not only their employers but also the South Korean government. At one point, they manage to get a minor victory for them and their fellow laborers, but that triumphant moment is soon crushed by their opponents who are willing to stop and crush them by any means necessary, and Tae-il becomes quite agonized over what he can possibly do more – especially when he and his colleagues may lose one last chance left them for now.
The story eventually culminates to what occurred to him on November 13th, 1970, and director Hong Jun-pyo thankfully presents this sad and horrible incident with enough restraint while never overlooking the human aspects of Tae-il and several other main characters. I must point out that they are rather broad and simple in my inconsequential opinion, but they are imbued with enough life and personality thanks to not only good animation but also the solid voice performances by a number of notable South Korean performers including Jang Dong-yoon, Yeom Hye-ran, Jin Seon-kyu, Park Chul-min, and Kwon Hae-hyo, and the story earnestly builds up its emotional momentum enough to earn our tears before its expected melodramatic finale.
In conclusion, “Chun Tae-il” is a humble but engaging animation film which handles its human subject with lots of care and respect, and it will probably make you have more interest on its real-life hero who surely deserves to be remembered more these days. To be frank with you, there are still lots of unjust labor exploitation here and there in the South Korean society even at this point, and I sincerely hope that the film will lead to more awareness of workers’ rights among young South Korean people.