Female director Boo Ji-young seamlessly blends the line between art and activism in “Cart.” The screening I attended was part of the film festival Korean Cinema NOW, that showcases the development of Korean culture. Before the film, a speaker from the University of Michigan Nam Center for Korean Studies, a key sponsor, explained that the film and the real-life incident that inspired it provoked a heated discussion on women’s rights and labor rights in South Korea that exists to this day. It was a privilege to learn more about the East Asian country while enjoying their cinema that has increasingly (and understandably) earned praise in the last decade.
The film focuses on Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah, “The Spies”) and divorced Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee, “Mama”), two mothers who do not live with the fathers of their children. They work at a major supermarket chain as temporary workers, meaning their benefits are limited. In spite of the fact many temporary workers get stuck in this position for several years. Right away, we see the difference between the two women’s attitude towards work: Sun-hee works overtime without pay to help her chances of getting a vaguely promised promotion from the company, while Hye-mi is unable to avoid conflict with entitled customers and struggles to subsequently apologize as demanded by her superiors. Both women comply with the supermarket’s regulations, though, as they are the only ones sustaining their households.
The struggles women face to keep employment at all ages is illustrated in the wide variety of women who work at the supermarket as temporary workers, who are from all walks of life and in similarly precarious situations. There are recent college graduates who can’t get a better job, to elderly and poorly educated women whose ill husbands can’t work and everything in between. All of the employees’ stories were fit into the film, admirably presenting the entire scope of the central issue.
Without any warning, all these women are suddenly fired without any respect paid to the stipulations of their contracts. Their company plans to avoid having to hire them as full-time employees under the law by outsourcing their jobs, brutally showing the impact such economic advancement has on human lives. They come together to apply for the creation of a union, but fail in doing so. The sisterhood they create as they find alternative means to protest their unfair termination and to fight for their jobs back proves far more valuable. Taking into consideration the women’s diverse backgrounds, their united front is all the more impressive. Eventually, a full-time male employee agrees to be their leader alongside Sun-hee and Hye-mi as they host demonstrations against the supermarket chain.
The men in “Cart” brilliantly play a critical role in presenting common opposing views when discussing gender equality in the workplace, without ever resorting to stereotypes that oversimplify the real patriarchy into villains with one-track minds. The way the busy, patronizing head executives of the supermarket chain repeatedly dismiss the protests as “sensitive” women getting out of control was very reflective of real-world enterprise. Not only did it show the sexist indifference fueled by business that allowed for the inequality to happen, but also their lack of understanding of the women’s economic instability that caused it.
“Cart” not only brings awareness to unfair practices targeting vulnerable demographics in real life, but also manages to keep you engaged with well-paced setbacks and advancements that never feel derived. The additional star power of a lead singer from the popular K-pop group EXO having the role of Sun-hee’s son will peak the interest of anyone, really, who cares about Korean pop culture. Or women. Or workers. Or people.