Samjin Company English Class (Samjin Group Yeong-aw TOEIC-ban)

Korea (2020) Dir. Lee Jong-pil

“Don’t’ tread on an ant, he’s done nothing to you/There may come a day when he’s treading on you!”

Adam Ant almost assuredly didn’t have corporate business in mind when he wrote that lyric for his 1980 classic Ant Music, but it is very much applicable. Major companies intent on global domination don’t just tread on smaller rivals, within their own internal hierarchy, those at the bottom of the ladder are also treated as nothing too.

In the mid-1990s, the Samjin Company, specialising in electronics, is a popular brand in Korea and are now looking to expand their presence globally, with the appointment of a new President, Billy Park (David Lee McInnis) to achieve this. Meanwhile, three office girls Lee Ja-Young (Ko Ah-Sung), Jung Yoo-Na (Esom) and Sim Bo-Ram (Park Hye-Soo) are told they could earn a promotion if they pass their English language exam.     

Whilst out on an errand, Ja-Young spots a serious toxic spill coming from the company’s factory and reports it to her boss. Action is swiftly taken, but Ja-Young is confused when the toxicology report declares a harmless quantity of chemicals compared to what she saw. Convinced something is going on, Ja-Young, Yoo-Na, and Bo-Ram unite to expose this apparent cover up but discover much more is happening behind the scenes.

Giving the drone worker vs. corrupt boss feel good revenge drama a slight feminist twist, Samjin Company English Class is a film that could only half be set in modern times, referring to the environmental subplot and the corporate malfeasance. Even with climate change being a major issue that has seen companies across the globe improve their carbon footprints and emissions, toxic waste dumping sadly persists in some territories as does the subsequent cover up

But this is only the basis for the story, the main thrust being a timely reminder of how far things have come regarding gender equality in the work place. Writer-director Lee Jong-pil doesn’t actually labour this point in his script, he lets it hover like an ominous miasma in the subtext, using office seniority rankings to posit the role of the office girl as a bottom rung position.

Or first glimpse of the ladies in situ finds them in a line up of identically dressed office dollies in figure hugging red and white uniforms, racing to see who can make their coffee orders the quickest.  Each assigned to different departments, their duties are that of the gopher – making coffees, answering phones, running errands, filing etc. and of course, looking pretty.

Visually, they may be corporate Stepford Wives, individually they couldn’t be different – Ja-Young is quick thinking, good natured, and resourceful; Yoo-Na carries herself with confidence but is full of ideas; and Bo-Ram is the bespectacled nerd and maths genius. Their united goal is to better themselves, eventually leading the way for the other girls in the company too shy to push for more.

Despite being called upon to be ultra efficient and reliable in keeping the office running, the respect isn’t there; even tenure isn’t a consideration – since they joined right out of school they are deemed “grade level” thus unworthy of taking seriously. However, with globalisation in Samjin’s sights, everyone is expected to speak English and the girls are sent to a TOIEC (Test of English for International Communication) school, with added enticement of a promotion for the top scorers.

This seems to be a passing facet of the story as the cover up of the pollution issue takes centre stage, but becomes important in the climax. To make the culprit a mystery, a cast of many is introduced, each one with levels of involvement and responsibility that starts at the bottom and naturally rises to the top. The idea is that loyalty to the company is paramount and in keeping your mouth shut and passing the buck, the truth stays hidden and nobody important gets hurt.

Unfortunately, they didn’t consider someone as earnest as Ja-Young would work for a company like Samjin because their products help improve people’s lives and that makes her proud. In her eyes, Samjin is as much her company as anyone else; after all, Asian philosophy is about the collective, not the individual, nicely delineated via the amusing sight of everyone of all ranks doing the daily office exercise routines.

Ja-Young and co’s pursuit of the truth plays out like a heist movie, as they sneak in and out of buildings, use technology of the time (this is pre-smartphone) to get evidence, and crucially, not be found out. The falsified toxicology report is just the beginning, with the actions of the many suspects leading to the trio uncovering a covert take over plan of the company, of which the toxic spill was part of the process in weakening Samjin’s value to the investors.

Cleverly plotted but at the same time conventional and often easy to predict outside of the occasional twist, Lee’s script relies upon call-backs to various points in the story that seem unimportant but prove fortuitous later. But like any good puzzle, the pieces fall into place to provide a glorious testimony to the abilities of those staff who are taken for granted.

Like with any good unit, the girls have terrific chemistry from being old friends and even if Ja-Young is he nominal focus, this is a group effort and all three are leading players. Whether it is comedy or drama, the characters are never tropey thanks to the inspired casting of Ko Ah-Sung, Esom, and Park Hye-Soo, and to the script affording them plenty of substance.  

The anti-Corporate America sentiment of Samjin Company English Class is kept quiet until the very end and might rattle a few cages in that territory, but for the rest of us, this is a hugely enjoyable tale to remind us not to underestimate people on the bottom of the pecking order, and certainly never take women in the office – or anywhere – for granted.

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