Director: Lee Jong Pil
Cast: Ko Ah Sung, E Som, Park Hye Soo, Cho Hyun-chul, Kim Jong-soo, Kim Won-hae
Runtime: 1 hr 50 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Clover Films and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 12 November 2020
Synopsis: In mid '90s when sexual and academic discriminations were rampant, 3 young female office workers, Ja-young, Yu-nah, Bo-ram, are shunned by their company and are only given insignificant chores due to the fact that they only have high school diplomas. When a company-wide memo goes around announcing that obtaining 600 score in TOEIC could earn them a promotion, the trio and other high school grad female office workers enroll in English classes in hope of thought of finally advancing their careers. One day, Ja-young is sent to a factory in the country on an errand and by chance witnesses its waste water being poured into the river. She's convinced that the company is into shady dealings, and together with her 2 friends, they go on a hunt to find irrefutable evidence but they're on the verge of getting fired by the company trying to cover up the corruption. When the rumor of the trio's renegade action goes around, they are completely shunned by everyone there. But the female workers from the English class combine forces to push this case into a new chapter.
The title seems to suggest a language-centric comedy, but Samjin Company English Class holds a lot more sass in class than playing up botched English deliveries. There’s a great deal of messaging here, from hierarchical ceilings to gender discrimination, but most of all, that doing the right thing might be tough, but always worth it in the end. It’s the classic David versus Goliath, where three talented ladies who are trapped in roles as mere office assistants, eventually become key drivers against an unethical corporate scheme.
Taking place in the mid-90s when South Korea has just opened up to the global market, the tone of the film is refreshingly different from the many that portray the country in all its current glamorous glory. Here is a country that’s still dated, hungry for recognition, yet under the hands of expert art direction, becomes more of something that’s nostalgically stylish and bursting with potential.
And it seems to be the case for Ja-young (Ko A-sung), who is ambitious and optimistic - certainly a worthy candidate with her incredible proficiency in handling office matters. But instead, she and her friends Yu-nah (E Som) and Bo-ram (Park Hye-soo), are trapped in their roles as fledgling office runts because globalisation has imposed every staff to obtain a 600 score in TOEIC to move up in their career path.
Ja-young takes this in her stride. Yu-nah, the more cynical of the three, thinks it just a scheme to lock them in trivial roles. She chooses to display her ideas through a staff, but never gets the credit for them. Bo-ram is a Math Olympiad, but prefers to keep a low profile by serving as a junior accountant in the firm.
The film would have stayed pretty one-note if this was just about them plotting their way up the rungs, but instead, a discovery of unethical discharge from one of their company’s factories sets the trio off on a hunt to trace down the culprits. The story then begins to weave between the topics of discrimination and power play, and throws up the questions about job ethics, personal morality, and tough career decisions. It’s all been done before, but somehow, when fleshed out in this premise, stays engaging.
Director Lee Jong-pil deserves credit for balancing so many threads in this film. He manages to keep the complex plot without confusing the audience, and as the story goes beyond the three and involves a massive ensemble, Lee achieves cohesion still through his characterisations. It’s impressive because there are at least 15 characters who play a significant part of the story-telling.
But credit also goes to the actresses. Each of them are almost cliches, but there’s an earnesty that comes from them that makes you buy in to their motivations. And because the script in itself has so much fun, accompanied with visual gags that feel spontaneous and random, Samjin Company English Class certainly deserves an A for effort.
(A serious coverup plot based on a true story gets a light-hearted treatment in this refreshing comedy)
Review by Morgan Awyong