Living as a Lightning Rod: First thoughts on “Awl” Episodes 1/2 and the movie “Cart”

I may complain a lot about the heat out here in SoCal, but when I can sit outside on Halloween night in a T-shirt and shorts while handing out candy–now that’s what I call Daebak! My daughter had a ton of essays to grade for the Freshman English class she currently teaches at the University, and the dogs bark incessantly when the doorbell rings. That combo equals too much chaos. I took my tablet, a cold Diet Pepsi and a bucket of candy to the front sidewalk and watched the first two episodes of “Awl” between giving out candy to the trick-or-treaters. The daughter graded papers and the dogs slept peacefully inside the quiet house. Although the little kids were cute, and the non-costumed teenagers took my teasing (and my candy) graciously, it did not beat the fantastic show I got to watch that balmy evening.

I was so ready for something like this to come along. My brain felt burned to a crisp after the WTF’ery, torture and rape scenes in “Six Flying Dragons”. Rest assured, I have dumped SFD. I can be reasonably sure that show will replay that triggering scene at least a couple more times in flashbacks; therefore I have no regret over dropping it. Sorry YAI–maybe next time. It’s not you…just the projects you pick. Ask your Goddess Hye Won-ah Noonim Kim Hee Ae! Her latest drama was a total dud too. *Sniffle* 

I am also mentally exhausted by the challenging male-female relationship issues in “Bubblegum”, “She Was Pretty” and the recently ended “Twenty Again”–not to mention the RL Kdrama my youngest son is currently living–a 100+ episode Daily Drama with a Makjang plot! It’s so bad, I can actually count the tropes involved! I needed a show like “Awl” to come along with a storyline about another topic that’s near and dear to my heart–justice for the underdog. You can read my daughter’s story of workplace mistreatment at the end of the Episode 19 recap for HITTG if you are interested. I should add that it was her decision to not take the owners to the Labor Board over being fired for pointing out the safety hazards at the store. She felt the punishment in the form of the hefty fines–nearly $90K USD–handed out by the Occupational Health and Safety Board was sufficient. I didn’t necessarily agree, but I respected and abided by her decision.

Here’s the plot: Adapted from a webtoon/manhwa, this is the RL story of the workers at E-Mart, a large grocery and merchandise chain of stores back in 2003. A group of part time and “temporary” workers were fired to save the corporation some money–but they fought back, joined a union and there was a strike that lasted over a year. Some workers were reinstated, some were not. This situation did not really have a neat and tidy happy ending.

The Kdrama “Heard it Through the Grapevine” had a subplot of workers’ rights that was my first wake-up call in terms of understanding that there is basically no enforcement of current labor laws in South Korea. I was shocked at the relatively minor demands the household staff made of the Han’s. I was more shocked that the Han’s expected them to work like “paid slaves” with no breaks, 24-7 on call hours, no defined retirement benefits and to expect to be treated without any respect. The staff seemed petrified to even dare to negotiate their few needs with the Han’s. The Han’s were astounded to think that their staff deserved some basic protections under the law–and were willing to go on strike over it. I remember asking, “Where is the Labor Law enforcement? Isn’t this guy a lawyer? Doesn’t he know the laws on wages, hours, etc?” The Han’s resorted to all kinds of obfuscation against their workers to keep their kingdom “Most-Joseon like”!

I’ve said before that I love a show with a strong start. On that count, “Awl” totally scores. We see what appears first to be a neatly dressed middle age man being an advocate for a young homeless guy who’s been denied his wages due to accidently damaging the restaurant’s scooter. Goo Go Shin (Ahn Nae Sang) marches right into the local Chinese restaurant where Homeless Guy was formerly employed. He turns on his pocket recording device and politely demands this guy’s back wages, reminding the boss/owner of all the labor laws he has broken. At first, the owner of the restaurant is disbelieving, then he physically threatens Go Shin. Bravely, GGS takes out his flip phone (Ha!) and starts calmly dialing up all the big businesses in the area, telling them not to eat at this restaurant! Some of the businesses whine that it’s the best Chinese food in town (!) but nonetheless, they agree to do it. Suddenly, the restaurant owner starts calling GGS “Hyung-nim”, like he’s the gangster boss! It’s not subbed that way, but I can hear it, and I’m LOL’ing at the whole situation. GGS gets a shopping bag full of cash from the restaurant owner for the homeless guy’s back wages. The young guy then tries to give GGS a bundle of bills for his trouble. GGS declines it and gives him a business card instead, and that’s how we find out he’s not just some batsh*t crazy ahjussi–he’s the head of a labor law consulting agency. Oh yeah! I’m in! This GGS guy is a quick talker, fearless and a badass to boot. What’s not to love?

The first two episodes have a lot of flashback so we know the whole backstory on our hero Lee Soo In (Ji Hyun Woo). He grew up as an only child, raised in a working class/borderline impoverished Sillimdong style neighborhood. He has a tough and burly father who physically stood up to injustice at his own workplace, and a quiet but equally tough mother who taught him to do the right thing–all of the time, and without compromise. I already like LSI’s parents. I want to be friends with them. They obviously have raised their kid with the highest moral and ethical standards. You can’t do better than that as a parent. Even though his Dad is a super scary guy, at no point do I think that LSI was ever abused or mistreated by his father. LSI stands up for his school classmate that is being bullied, and incurs the wrath of the teacher, who beats him–quite mercilessly, I might add–and LSI takes it with barely a flinch. It’s disturbing to watch; I nearly had to FF through that scene. LSI knows he’s doing the right thing, and the pressure makes him very guarded. He seems to have few friends. LSI’s corrupt HS homeroom teacher wants cash bribes too, and makes the student’s lives even more difficult if their families don’t pay up. LSI knows his folks can’t afford it, but his mom coughs up the dough anyways; she can’t stand to see what her son is going through. As a consequence, she doesn’t have enough money to go to the doctor when she gets sick.

Side note–I can 100% assure you the same kind of crap goes on in most highly competitive HS sports teams in my area of SoCal right now. Dads of the students/players get the coach and his staff all kinds of “perks” and “free goodies” especially under the umbrella of ‘fundraising’, and lo and behold–their kid gets on the team and/or gets playing time. Moms do the “perks” thing too–and I will leave it to your vivid imagination about how that exactly works. I’ve seen it myself, and so has my youngest son. As a mom who could not get on board with these kinds of shenanigans, I knew my son was never going to play baseball in HS. I was fine with that, and so was the son, once he saw the situation. My son even talked a couple of his baseball buddies into quitting the team right at the start because the bribery aka “pay-to-play” system was so blatantly obvious.

LSI’s next stop is the military academy. Again, there is a ethics problem. The cadets are being pressured to vote a certain way in an election. The pressure is fierce, and the repercussions are going to be huge. LSI stands up and gives a speech worthy of the one moment in “Six Flying Dragons” I really loved–the Episode 2 speech of Jeong Do Jeon. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration–he’s taking his life in his hands here:

Here’s the raw video clip:

And the translated text of his speech from Dramacool.com:

“Military serves to keep the balance of power and to protect democracy. Over the past 3 years, this is what I have heard repeatedly. And a year from now when we become commissioned officers ourselves, there is one principle we must pass on to new cadets. What if the military academy failed to keep its integrity and committed electoral fraud? And if we let this happen, how could we possibly justify the existence of this institution to the new cadets? We were trained to fight against corruption. If we keep silent today, when tomorrow comes we will have been the ones inciting the corruption. We choose a rough road to justice over an easy road to injustice. We’ve shouted this honor code many times a day. It’s time to stop talking and start acting on it. My fellow cadets, let us live by our honor code. That is all.”

This speech gives me goose bumps. It’s so straightforward and truthful. No flowery words, just the facts. I love it! As retaliation, LSI’s room is trashed, and there is an accident where his leg is broken (deliberately?) on the soccer field. He is nearly kicked out of the academy. He ends up in the infirmary and luckily a superior officer reminds TPTB that if LSI went to the media they’d be lit on fire in the court of public opinion. LSI survives this incident, but he starts debating how to stand up for what’s right–and handle the severe consequences for doing so. After an incident in the DMZ where he nearly shoots one of his own guys who screwed up and was mistaken for a North Korean soldier, LSI realizes that shooting/killing people is not his game either. He’s shaken to the core by this incident, and files for discharge.

After LSI leaves the military for civilian life, he ends up working at Fourmis Mart (note that Fourmis=French word for ‘ants’. Literally “Ant Mart”. That is seriously jacked up.) Visually, the Fourmis Mart looks kinda like the Arirang Korean Market up in the local Koreatown by my house–just the layout and the way the vegetables and items are displayed. It’s definitely a different setup than the H Mart or the Zion store, or the Vietnamese markets.

Civilian life is not a whole lot easier, as LSI’s workers grouse about how stiff their boss is due to his military background. They even imagine he would be like that if he were to (gasp!) date a girl! Personally, I wouldn’t mind dating a slightly stiff and dorky, yet principled guy like LSI. What a catch he would be–there are so few straight-arrow dudes out there like him. LSI is very quiet, almost shy–and exceptionally observant of everything that goes on around him. Unlike the other managers, he puts an apron on over his dress shirt and tie, and goes out onto the floor of the market, stocking shelves, tidying up, and making sure no detail is overlooked. Bonus: he can closely watch over his workers, since they are also subjected to random abuse from the other managers. This earns him a side-eye from both the middle level managers and the upper management as he doesn’t yell at people or belittle them to get things done. It’s awesome–he quietly sets the example, just like his mom did. One day, LSI is asked to get rid of his coterie of workers–and you know what he says? “That’s illegal.” No dramarama, no screaming…..just the unadulterated truth, and a stoic determination to not let his workers be dismissed unjustly, even if it means massive sacrifice on his part.

Do not be fooled by the large amount of flashbacks in the first couple of episodes–the pace of the story is very steady if slightly slow. It feels like every detail is here for a reason. There are even flashbacks in Episodes 3 and 4. The acting is first rate all the way around–even the young guys like Yesung who are Kpop “Idols”. I’d never know they are rookies. There is one WTH moment at the end of episode 2 where LSI is thinking of himself as a deer; vulnerable and unprotected, and then he imagines an elephant protecting the deer….but the show uses these choppy animatronic models or poor CGI images, and the scene comes off feeling disjointed and narratively weird. (at least to me) It gives a strange vibe to the show. Luckily, that seems to be a one-and-done phenomenon, and the rest of this show is so good, I can forgive this singular out of whack moment. Maybe it was in the manhwa/webtoon, and the PD/Writer-nim’s are sticking close to the canon. I’ve seen some commentators compare this show to “Misaeng” but the comparison is not valid, IMHO. This show feels much grittier, and far more real. Instead of focusing on the main character getting on board with the company, “Awl” focuses on the dangers of groupthink, the societal pressure to keep in line and not point out wrongdoing, and how ultimately any corporation will do whatever they darn well please in a country like Korea where labor laws are routinely ignored.

Viki and DramaFever aren’t subbing this show, although Viki is trying to get the licenses/rights. I’ve been watching it on Dramacool.cc, which is one of my fave sites for the offbeat shows. Currently, Episodes 1-4 are fully English subbed, and episodes 5 & 6 are awaiting subs. DramaCool has a nice selection of older shows and some newer movies; in fact there are a couple of recently subbed movies I am considering reviewing for the blog. Best of all—DramaCool doesn’t seem to crash my computer or give me ransomware issues like some other sites. DramaCool says the subs for “Awl” are theirs, so I will go with that until I know otherwise. It’s also available on MyAsianTV.se, but if you watch it on your phone/tablet, it can be frustrating closing out the ads. Subs take several days, so patience is necessary. I thought DramaBeans was going to recap it, so I wasn’t going to bother, but I now see that they’ve only recapped the first episode with no promises of more to come. I *might* take this on as a recap project starting in Episode 2. My appliances are functional, but now the house has some major plumbing issues I need to deal with first.

There is also a movie “Cart” that was based on the same event as “Awl”. It came out in 2014, and it’s now fully English subbed and available for free on DramaCool. It’s told from the perspective of the ladies who work at the store. It seems to be a movie that is much more realistic about the demands placed on women–especially divorced and/or single women–who work and have families, unlike the recent TV drama “Mrs. Cop”. That show either glossed over the issues of working women, or went straight to the melo/makjang route. “Cart” was shown at multiple film festivals, and it won a number of awards. This is a movie that would be well worth your time to watch if you like the subject matter in “Awl”. Here are some review links. (1) (2). You might be also interested to know that D.O. aka Do Kyung Soo from EXO is in this movie; he plays the initially unsympathetic HS age son of one of the Mart Ladies. He receives a strong reality check about workplace mistreatment when he goes out and gets a job to financially help out his Mom. I’ve been very impressed so far with D.O.’s acting; he did a sterling job in his role in “It’s Okay, That’s Love” as well.

I can’t encourage you enough to give this show a watch. Projected at 12 episodes, it’s not a huge commitment, and I think it will be a emotional but ultimately fulfilling experience. After “She Was Pretty”, it could be just what is needed to counteract the fluff and sweetness and/or the crazy ending–we shall see! I’m going to do a little take-off here on that show–everyone and everything had to be “Most-like” for the magazine, right?

**************

If you are “Awl” done with watching “Most” TV shows that feature romantic relationships that make you go “Heol!”, or if you are finished with dramas that make your brain shut down in an “Awl” encompassing fog as you try and figure out “Most” of the ginormous plot holes–then you might be “Awl” in to watch a show like this one. Other Kdramas are full of “Most” pretty people and “Awl” fun times, but that’s obviously not “Awl” the experiences of “Most” average Koreans.

Maybe you think you have it bad at work–then you realize how lucky you are to live in a country like the US where “Awl” or at least “Most” of the labor laws are enforced. It’s easy to blow off issues like worker’s rights, until yours are violated…then you suddenly are “Awl” about having someone that will stand with you to protect your rights against a “Most” unreasonable employer. I think we “Awl” need to be reminded from time to time about how important it is to do the “Most” right thing, and to do it whenever possible. I am “Awl” thrilled about this show with its even pacing, “Most” believable acting, and strong ethical message. “Most” importantly, this looks like a show that will challenge me and make me aware of “Awl” the sacrifices others have made and continue to make in order to have the “Most” safe and “Awl” fair employment environment for everyone.

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One thought on “Living as a Lightning Rod: First thoughts on “Awl” Episodes 1/2 and the movie “Cart”

  1. Pingback: AWL. JTBC. | IKurate

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