Dir. Boo Ji-young
Screenplay. Kim Kyung-chan
South Korea, 2014
“Could drippings really pierce the stone?” asks Dong-joon (Kim Kang-woo) of Madam Soon-rye (Kim Young-ae) in Boo Ji-young’s Cart (Ka-teu), both physically and emotionally battered from eighty days of striking. The elderly woman, a source of much vigour, humour but steely determination in the film, does not answer him, instead sitting reflectively but despondent in silence. In this question and the pause, Ji-young and writer Kim Kyung-chan allow the audience a quiet moment to consider the personal conflict within strike action: that taking this stand often comes with a sense of purpose and futility. These opposing themes reoccur throughout Cart, which was inspired by the 2007 organised strike of (predominantly) women temporary-workers and cleaners against South Korean hypermarket chain Homever and New Core (both part of the E-Land Group conglomerate). Drawing from these real events, Ji-young creates a powerfully touching, though idealistic, depiction of contemporary workers’ struggle in South Korea against corporate tyranny and sexism.
Toiling away in a retail supermarket, model employee Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) works tirelessly towards the permanent employment that will stabilise her family life. However, when she is laid off alongside the other women temporary workers, she finds herself reluctantly elected to one of the leadership of a newly formed labor union. In parallel, Hye-mi (Moon Jung-hee), a resilient but troubled young woman, also finds herself in this union leadership, though friction emerges between the two and their life-work outlook. Where Sun-hee is initially self-interested and passive, Hye-mi is resistant and values her relationships over the humiliating need to attain customer satisfaction and employer recognition. Both women are tested in their attitudes and beliefs, bending their personal trajectories in unexpected ways. Ji-young and Kyung-chan are certainly unambiguous in their portrayal of this dispute. There is the uniform, synchronous and sycophantic (all employees must refer to the customers as ‘beloved customer’) routine of the retail ‘factory’ that castes women into precarious, subservient positions and privileges men into regular supervisor roles. This bears out in the actual contemporary South Korean labor market, where ’57% of women were in [precarious employment] as opposed to 35% of men’ according to developmental studies professor Guy Standing. Set against this is the vibrant, synergetic and creative community of women that emerges during the supermarket occupation. Their individual faces and stories, lost in the establishing shot of lined-up workers, come to the fore; both sympathised with and celebrated. Ji-young does not shy away from the brutality within corporate repression, either through the servile persona adopted by the workers or the hired strike-breakers that unleash violence on the protesters in some of the film’s more upsetting and disorientating sequences.
While the segregation of genders and power dynamic is stark here, Ji-young and Kyung-chan are not too partisan or reductive in their framing. It is in the young, sympathetic Dong-joon that both director and writer suggest a universal need for men to question their institutional privilege and link arms with those oppressed. Though most of the male managerial staff are shown as patronising and manipulative, a brief insight is offered into the mindset through Manager Choi (Lee Seong-joon) who carries out his repressive duties for his own family’s well-being. Conversely, it is the young Dong-joon who soon becomes entangled with the striking women when he is fired from his job, despite attempts to coerce him. Though he is later elected as the union leader in the film, Ji-young never loses focus of the women as empowered, emancipating and the primary agents of resistance. When Sun-hee’s son Tae-young (Do Kyung-soo) is unfairly dismissed from a part-time, exploitative job, it is his girlfriend Ye-rin (Song Ji-in) who stands up to the shop owner and defends him when he is unwilling to do so himself. Each of the principal actors above give effective, moving performances but this is also an ensemble piece with the supporting actors. While veteran actor Young-ae’s has a gentle, curmudgeonly presence that holds the strikers together and Jung-ah’s impressive emotional and physical transformation from being submissive to defiant stands out, these performances remain rooted in the camaraderie of the other women on-screen. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Ji-young allows the women to speak individually and directly in interview-like close-up and intercuts this with the listening and responsive audience. The individual and ensemble performances feel equally heartfelt and authentic, but it keeps our focus on this struggle as a collective endeavour.
This breakdown of conformity and celebration in the fight for self-determination is further emphasised through Kim Woo-hyung’s cinematography, especially in the ‘deterioration’ of the cashier line. Where the early costume design and camera-work underline the uniformity and anonymising power over the workers, both elements are consciously subverted. As such, the blue, stifling uniforms are discarded for casual, bold pink jumpers; the Sale signs stripped down and replaced with political placards and personal artwork. Where the early sequences continually position the camera to place Sun-hee indistinguishably on the cashier line of workers (almost clone-like), later sequences place the camera in birds-eye view, now framing the workers as individuals or pairs as they sleep amongst the tills. Candle-lit vigils and a make-shift, in-house theatre are arguably too idyllic, considering the actual conditions that the occupying workers in Homever had to endure, but these come to represent symbolic victories over the former sterility of their workplace. It is only in the climax where this otherwise subtly reinforcing cinematography succumbs to overblown melodrama: as protracted slow-motion and swelling, epic music attempt to punctuate the final protest action. Considering that Ji-young and Woo-hyung are able to evoke genuine care for these characters and their cause, this finale feels too forced and suddenly at odds with the rest of the film. In closing with the workers’ tainted success and a final charge against the hired goons, Ji-young resorts to more blatant techniques so that the deeper, sentimental victory might be emphasised. Unfortunately, it is so overdone as to almost achieve the opposite effect- it distances us and, ironically with the film’s final image, pushes us out of it.
While ending on this sour note, it is the necessity of mutual solidarity and organising around this principle that is at the core of Cart. Ji-young and Kyung-chan are potentially quixotic in their portrayal of this harmonious commune and its committed union leadership, but it is still the idea of building strong social and creative connections that overturns the exploitative, atomising forces of corporate hegemony that resonates. While Dong-joon’s question remains unanswered, whether ultimately their resistance will yield success, which remains a contentious issue when examining the actual outcomes of the Homever and New Core strikes, Ji-young’s film still insists on the importance of standing up and struggling regardless. As with other socially-concerned filmmakers who have portrayed this issue from a similar vantage, such as Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses and the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, in the end it is not the winning outright that matters here. Rather it is gaining personal dignity and having courage in the face of futility that are the smaller, emotional but more significant victories.