나는 나를 해고하지 않는다 「Na-neun Na-reul Hae-go-ha-ji Ahn-neun-da」
Release Date: January 28th, 2021
Duration: 110 mins.
Director: Lee Tae-Gyeom
Writer: Lee Tae-Gyeom, Kim Ja-en, (Script),
Starring: Yoo Da-In (Jung-Eun), Oh Jung-Se (Seo Choong-Sik),
I Don’t Fire Myself is a slow-burn drama depicting resistance against corporate exploitation. It does this through the journey, both mental and physical, of lead character Jeong-eun (Yoo Da-in), a technical administrator whose bosses, in an attempt to make her quit work, force her join a subcontracting company located in the middle of nowhere with the proviso is that if she can stick out her year-long exile she can return to her original job. It will be tough because the tasks Jeong-eun will have to do are a far cry from the admin she specialised in as she joins a team of four rough-and-ready guys in scaling and maintaining pylons along a coastal landscape.
Getting off to an atmospheric start, we see Jeong-eun’s descent from the city to the outer edges of civilisation via a long drive along country roads. Her fancy car and business attire mark her as an outsider to the small-town folk she meets, especially her new colleagues who ride out to work with dirty and battered boots, coveralls, harnesses, hardhats, and ropes while she remains behind to do paperwork in the company’s small office.
The story then moves forward with a depiction of her attempts at getting to know the guys, the economic troubles of their company, and getting past prejudice as she grows into her new role. Resistance to her presence is more complicated than her being a woman, for she is an outsider foisted upon this tight-knit group of men when they are in a dire financial situation. That, and she is relatively untested in the art of pylon climbing. Even if she can cope with the work, someone on the team will lose their job because Jeong-eun’s salary has to be paid from their dwindling budget.
And there’s the dramatic rub.
Just as she faces pressure to surmount tough tasks in order to climb back up to her former white-collar job, the blue-collar men around her, who are doing dangerous work with little pay, are also faced with the threat of being fired. A cruel situation has been deliberately created by management where a “crabs in the barrel” mentality is expected to take hold of the pylon climbers. The stakes are raised when we learn that Jeong-eun’s biggest obstacle is her fear of heights! However, in a sign of determination she almost literally sheds her old self by casting off her business suit and donning coveralls and even changing her mentality to fit in her new occupation.
This evolution is earned organically through a series of trials where we see Jeong-eun and her colleagues gel through shared hardships on the job as they scale towers and negotiate their parlous financial situation together. Here, the film is nakedly critical of corporate capitalism as evinced through the attitudes of hostile managers who constantly threaten the characters with pay cuts despite the critical and dangerous role they play.
A key figure in unlocking Jeong-eun’s abilities is Seo Choong-Sik (Oh Jung-Se) who becomes a quasi-friend/mentor due to a sympathy developing between the two, especially since he sees the unfairness of her situation, his experience juggling jobs to look after his three daughters coming into play. Through their interactions, Jeong-eun learns of the exploitation working-class people face through the casualisation and underfunding of their livelihoods and his life becomes emblematic of many a worker who has been abused by the managerial class. As Jeong-eun witnesses and soon endures similar exploitation, she comes to re-examine her own attitude from earlier in the film and a satisfying synchronicity with her colleagues is established as her character evolves.
The film is at its best in depicting how these conflicts are handled via the changes in how characters interact and through dialogue that feels real. The restraint in acting and the languid pacing allow time and space for the atmosphere and ideas to develop into a coherent critique of how workers are exploited as well as giving us a slice of life in the sticks – there are many gorgeous shots of rolling hills and sea stretching out towards peach-coloured horizon as the workers toil away through the evenings. While this critique emerges, the film never loses sight of the misogyny ingrained in workplaces and carefully lays out the effects that a patriarchal society has on women through depictions of the pervasive diminishment of Jeong-eun and her capabilities, something which works along all classes as seen from the elite office workers and salt-of-the-earth types. Their casual sexism and dismissive attitude to her and the other female office workers is the sort of thing heard at offices in real life but just as revealing are the conversations that Jeong-eun has with her female friends which add a gendered dimension/explanation to how exploitation occurs and its effects on women. It is a frustrating situation where ladies are left looking at marriage, quitting work, or suicide as a way out of a competition stacked against them.
The denouement of the film follows a tragedy that will rock viewers and while the dip into melodramatic situation might be jarring, it serves as a compelling catalyst for a really inspirational moment where Jeong-eun conquers her fears and shows far more grit than many of the men who put her down. Throughout the film, we see her struggles to climb the pylons and towards the end, when it really counts, she reaches the top and shows mastery of her environment. Doing it seems insane since director Lee Tae-Gyeom films the structures as intimidating as relayed through cinematic techniques where the vertiginous heights of these pylons and the strength of the steel struts and the power they transfer are felt through low-angle shots peering up, clanging of metal as tools hit the latticework of the structures, and the hum of electricity. However, by the end we believe her character growth and will her up to the top out of admiration and respect. The pylons make the perfect metaphor for career ladders, society, and gender barriers and we want Jeong-eun and every capable good-hearted person who can make a different for the better to also make that ascent and to enjoy the view.
I Don’t Fire Myself plays at the New York Asian Film Festival from Wednesday, August 18th, 6:00pm via the Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema