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The Best South Korean Film of 2021: Lee Tae-gyeom's I Don't Fire Myself

The best South Korean film from last year, Lee Tae-gyeom's “I Don’t Fire Myself” is a sobering social drama about one ordinary woman’s hard and desperate struggle for her life and existence. Often reminiscent of the comparable works of the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach, the movie sharply and devastatingly examines a number of social injustices including sex discrimination and labor exploitation. It's also powerful how the movie earns a little glimmer of hope and optimism in the end, while never overlooking that harsh reality surrounding her and some other people around her.

We gradually understand the gloomy situation of Jeong-eun (Yoo Da-in), a young female employee of an unnamed big electricity company which is virtually the fictional version of Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO). She has been recently transferred to some remote rural beach area where she's supposed to supervise a small group of subcontractors. But on her first day, she's not welcomed much by these subcontractors and their manager. The manager callously reminds her that there's really nothing she can do except merely occupy a desk hastily prepared for her. To her frustration and exasperation, it looks like there's no other option for her except quitting the job.   

It becomes apparent that the company is deliberately pushing her toward quitting her job instead of directly firing her. Although she's a fairly competent office worker, she is unjustly mistreated by the company because of a serious ethical matter; a brief flashback shows her being stuck in a very humiliating position while openly ridiculed and bullied by several obnoxious male employees. Some of you may think this infuriating moment is a fictional exaggeration, but I and many other South Korean audiences know too well that such a degrading punishment is not far from our reality. 

Understandably quite bitter about her circumstance, Jeong-eun drinks every night. But she does not give up. Haunted by the sad memories of a certain close female colleague of hers who crashed to the bottom of despair and hopelessness shortly after getting fired, she soon attempts to find any possible way to endure before being transferred to back to the company one year later. When she later learns from an in-house evaluation report of how the company willingly devalues her, she becomes more determined not to step back at all. Instead, she promptly volunteers when the subcontractors need one more person for their latest task.      

The work turns out to be a lot more difficult and dangerous than Jeong-eun thought at first. For example, they work on tall transmission towers that have thin transmission lines between them. Jeong-eun is soon paralyzed by her fear of heights, and medication doesn't help. Jeong-eun subsequently comes to request some help from one of the male subcontractors, who is reluctant at first. But he eventually accepts her request because she offers some money for his coaching while he needs to earn more for himself and his young kids. Although she understandably fumbles a lot at first, Jeong-eun becomes more accustomed to climbing up the transmission tower thanks to his good coaching. There's a lovely, peaceful moment when they spend some little private time together while being safely tethered to transmission lines.

The screenplay by director Lee Tae-gyeom and his co-writer Kim Ja-un, which is inspired by a real-life story of one female worker not so different from Jeong-un, thankfully does not push its two main characters into a conventional romance. Instead, it focuses more on a genuine sense of compassion and solidarity being developed between them. Jeong-eun comes to see more of the cruel and heartless side of the company, one that constantly exploits its subcontractors as pushing them into more danger and competition in the name of efficiency and profit. There are not enough safety measures and proper tools for them, and they even have to buy a special safety uniform for themselves, which is pretty expensive to say the least. Nevertheless, they cannot possibly complain without losing their jobs. 

And that takes me back to a shocking recent local news article which came out in last month. This article was about the unfortunate death of a young subcontractor working under KEPCO, a tragic death that chillingly and maddeningly resonates with what I observed from the film. For instance, just because this young man was technically not its employee, KEPCO did not provide him anything to protect him from many risky tasks he was demanded to do. And for Christ’s sake, he was not even given safety gloves, which he was actually trying to purchase for himself before his death.        

After an unexpected plot development, "I Don't Fire Myself" naturally becomes more dramatic as our heroine stubbornly tries to do the right thing; Yoo Da-in, who previously drew my attention via her unadorned but undeniably haunting lead performance in “Re-Encounter” (2010), is captivating as her character firmly sticks to her belief and integrity. In addition to deftly conveying to us her character’s human flaws and vulnerability, Yoo does a commendable job of conveying her character’s inner strength without making any overstep. She is the main reason why the finale has some poetic beauty. It's really a shame that Yoo has not tried movie acting mrore during last 12 years; she has lost none of her talent and presence yet, and she indubitably gives one of the best South Korean movie performances of last year.   

Several other main cast members in the film dutifully support Yoo as required. Oh Jung-se is convincing as a weary man who turns out to be more compassionate than he seems at first, and his humble performance lets us sense more of the quiet economic desperation behind his character. Kim Sang-gyoo, Kim Do-gyun, and Park Ji-hong are also effective in bringing some life and personality to their respective supporting roles. Choi Ja-hye brightens up the mood a little when she briefly appears as Jeong-eun’s fellow female office worker.  

"I Don't Fire Myself" earnestly but passionately presents its urgent social issues with a number of powerful human moments from achingly realistic story and characters. Although its last act feels rather heavy-handed at times (several detestable company guys are so cartoonish you'll be surprised they do not have mustache to twirl), the film's strong emotional power remains intact. I found myself touched again by what its heroine adamantly promises to herself during the very last shot. Yes, this is a tough movie, but as a universal labor drama it will engage you a lot more than expected. You'll will never forget the film, or Jeong-eun, after watching it. 

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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