[HanCinema's Film Review] "Work to Do"

Despite the story taking place in 2016, "Work to Do" saw its premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in 2023. It was just one of many South Korean films overlooked that year by international audiences, its bleak realism not being the kind of thing a film festival crowd can easily empathize with. "Work to Do" stars Jang Sung-bum in the leading role as Joon-hee, a manager at a shipbuilding company who takes on a central role in layoffs at the dying company.


Joon-hee holds, in theory, an ideal employment position as a salaryman. He owns his own house, albeit on a company backed mortgage, and is preparing to marry his longtime girlfriend Jae-i, played by Lee No-ah. But Joon-hee can't really have a positive attitude, because he knows the situation at the company is precariousness, and noone seems to know what to do about it. It's little mystery why the company is unable to compete with China, when we find out that sixty percent of the staff is managerial.

People get promoted up, and farther away from actual work, to the point that Joon-hee finds that he wields disproportionate power in the layoffs and restructuring just because he knows how to make functional spreadsheets. Much of Joon-hee's depression stems from the fact that he recognizes how messed up this situation is but he has no idea what to do about it. In one such scene, he meets his mother, played by Kang Myung-joo, and she observes that he's delivering the news that he's going to have a child as if he were announcing someone's death.

Kang Myung-joo's character is noteworthy, despite her low screentime, because we get the impression she chose a different life for herself. A yellow Sewol ribbon in that scene serves as a reminder of the political mood of the Park Geun-hye presidency, which is explicitly noted at the end with a flash forward to the Candlelight Rallies. Joon-hee and Jae-i participate in them casually, as so many people did, dreaming of a better future.

Did we ever get to that future? Well, that's the years later subtext that "Work to Do" nails so harshly. Not really. Joon-hee wonders if the decisions he's made were a horrible mistake, prioritizing his own economic comfort over genuine solidarity with his fellow man...and woman. Kyeong-yeon, played by Jang Liu, is an employee whose background as a woman of certain educational status puts her at a disadvantage on Joon-hee's spreadsheets.

Her closing statement about the company being a place with no real future stings Joon-hee, even if much of her intent is to improve the situation for the employees who stay behind. That's what really infuses the layoff scenes with such bleak agony. Any effort to save the company would have to radically rethink what the company is, take bigger risks, but no one, least of all Joon-hee has the courage to try to do that. Only the labor union is really willing to fight for their own, while Joon-hee and others in his office just make excuses.

Written by William Schwartz


"Work to Do" is directed by Park Hong-jun, and features Jang Sung-bum, Seo Suk-kyu, Kim Young-woong, Jang Liu, Lee No-ah, Kim Do-young-IV. Release date in Korea: 2024.