Sun-Hee works as a cashier in a large supermarket in a South Korean town. She is just about managing, working unpaid overtime she hopes will earn her the permanent position she has been promised which would enable her to satisfy some of her children’s wants. Shy and passive, she watches as a colleague, Hye-mi, is humiliated by being forced to apologise on her knees to a customer.
Then all the non-permanent staff are sacked by text message as the company wants to outsource their jobs because, as one manager says, everybody’s doing it. The women meet secretly and set up a union. Sun-Hee reluctantly gets involved and is cajoled by her friends into becoming one of the negotiators with the management. When they are ignored, the women strike. As scabs are brought in, the women occupy the supermarket and the rest of the film follows the course of the strike which is finally broken by the use of company goons and riot police.
The key theme is how Sun-Hee changes as a result of her central involvement in the strike, becoming more confident and assertive. Her relationships also change, particularly with her son, who resents her absence but comes to respect her when she sticks up for him against his own abusive employer, but also with Hye-mi who is forced back to work after her young son is seriously injured by the thugs.
The film ends a bit like a Western with Sun-Hee on a doomed mission to take on the riot police armed only with a shopping trolley. ‘Cart’ is based on a real strike of workers at the E-Land Home-ever supermarket in 2007 which ended with some of the workers being reinstated. The reality of the awakening of low-paid and precarious women workers is also echoed in the Grunwick strike and more recently in the struggles of cleaners.
The only part of the film that grates with this is the ease with which the women strike leaders were prepared to hand over the leading role to a man, a supervisor who joins the union after the strike started. (Perhaps this reflects Korean culture.) But the film gives a realistic view of how people change and learn in struggle.
• ‘Cart’ was shown as part of the 2016 Korean Film Festival. Versions with English subtitles can be found online.