LIGHT FOR THE YOUTH (2019)
Savage corporate demands and the desperation of Korea’s youth to succeed colour this cautionary tale
While South Korea has established itself as an influential developed country, the global view of ‘Korean Cool’ is contrasted by a populous barbarised by work demands, including a youth generation feeling overwhelmed by expectations.
Youth unemployment in Korea has already created a ‘red in tooth and claw’ battle for graduate positions and early career progression.
Shin Su-won returns with her fourth film – building on an already commendable filmography which features Pluto (2012), Madonna (2015) and Glass Garden (2017). Light For The Youth is a patient and sometimes mysterious view of today's youth and corporate Korea.
June Lee (Yoon Chan-young) is a 19-year-old intern at a credit card call centre, where the young staff are coerced to relentlessly hound customers over late payments.
Their reward for such efforts is a work culture where June Lee wears an adult nappy to reduce his toilet breaks and missed calls trigger docked wages.
His manager is the middle-aged Se-yeon (Kim Ho-jung), who finds herself under similar pressure from head office, where misogynistic males goad and threaten her.
Se-yeon's own daughter Mi-rae (Jeong Ha-dam) has recently graduated as a philosophy major and finds herself desperately seeking a foot on this unenvious corporate ladder of woe.
At the call centre, staff are encouraged to embarrass the tardy payment customers, threatening to tell family members of their debt struggles if they fail to pay.
When June Lee chases up a payment in person on Se-yeon's behest, he then goes missing, leaving a suicide note behind. However, Se-yeon continues to receive messages and videos from him, offering her ‘Life Practice’ insights.
While Se-yeon tries to track down the mystery source of these messages, it seems her daughter is on a similar path of feeling crushed by the pressure of expectation.
“Do you know what salary is? It’s what you get paid for selling your dignity,” Se-yeon says to June before his disappearance, while her daughter later warns her, “Mom, I’m afraid to live.”
We witness plenty of what such an environment can do to people, with the survival instinct driving employees and potential job candidates to turn on each other.
What an employer can reasonably ask us to do, and how we should react to such demands, is also a common moral thread to the film’s fabric.
Some of the film’s more dramatic developments lack the energy to transform it into something more profound, but it is likely to find a highly responsive target audience in the youth of Korea, who will see plenty of their own strife in Shin’s considered and timely film.