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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Workers of the Mart, Unite!
by Donald Levit

Domestic and imported, over many years many films have wrapped themselves around labor v. management, strikes and lockouts, tactics legal and illegal on both sides, threats and actual violence. A number of these considerations are memorable, some even classics; New York Asian Film Festival poster picture Cart/Ka-teu is not among them, even if its heart is squarely in the right place.

The trouble is, that heart is too blatantly obvious and too obviously on its sleeve.

The better sort of labor unrest films often focus on one or two major clashing personalities and involve not only some depth of character but also a change of heart, a conversion from apathy or outright opposition over to solidarity with the good oppressed little guys. It may be in part the language barrier here, for subtitles do not adequately translate meaning or feeling, but however sliced or misunderstood or not from the Korean, these hundred three minutes present conflict with no conflict. That is, in bright shiny colors and bright shiny locations that remain spotless when logic says they should reek of sweaty bodies and palpable honest indignation, everything is black and white.

The plight of the Mart everything megastore employees is doubtlessly global and while there must be places which are not so openly sexist as Seoul, sympathies are clearly meant to be on the side of the imposed-upon all-female check-out-register “girls” and the pitifully few uneasy men who eventually join them. Unlike management suits and unseen ownership and masked rough-‘em-up thug enforcers whom the police do not interfere with, the assistant floor manager Dong-Ji Kang who does soul-search and join the strikers is unmarried with no other mouths to feed at home and, at cross purposes with the movie’s “message,” immediately becomes a movement theorist and a leader of the ladies. Exclusively male, management and ownership stress the families that depend on them but conveniently ignore the fact that female workers also contribute to their own family incomes and, in cases in the film, may be the temporary or permanent sole breadwinners.

The country’s labor and basic protection safety net laws are not questioned or clarified but, even under its present female president (and daughter of the long-time strongman) it appears that low- and mid-level workers, mostly women, have no rights, guarantees or recourse. Uniformed, kowtowing, literally physically bowing and scraping not only to floor superiors and office higher ups but as well to the “beloved customer” who is always in the right, they are lost when some of their own are sacked without warning or compensation rather than made permanent.

Three of them call a meeting at which they push through a motion to unionize. As they bond in solidarity and call one another “Sis” -- no “Bro’s” in the bunch -- more are fired or threatened, and so they occupy and shut down the multi-storey store. The film singles out two or three strike leaders, their home lives and the special burdens laid on them but does not achieve the individual depth that would elicit true empathy.

There are one-dimensional melodramatic good guys -- really gals -- and villains who all but twirl waxed moustaches they do not have, sit-ins/”occupies,” a tent city, a war of flyers for public sympathy, high-pressure water hoses, non-fatal casualties among the youngest and the oldest. Of course one sides with the downtrodden ladies, but this picture is all too clean and trite and unexceptional. Director Ji-young Boo offers not a single surprise except, perhaps, that the Mart does not declare a Chapter Eleven or the government call in national troops.

(Released by Myung Films; not rated by MPAA.) 

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