A promotional photo circulating for the film Samjin Company English Class, features a group of women walking confidently forward, seemingly in solidarity. It was a similar photo, a snapshot of Seoul in the 90s, that inspired director and screenwriter Lee Jong-pil to write the film, which ultimately won Korea’s Baeksang Arts Award for Best Picture of The Year.
The film’s promotional photo features actresses Esom, Go Ah-sung and Park Hye-soo, but Lee had no particular actors in mind when he started writing. Rather, he wanted to capture the spirit of the photo he saw, in which three career women walked side by side.
“Each woman had unique characters and styles, but there was a peculiar sense of balance among them as if they were the same person,” said Lee. “I didn’t necessarily look for actors who resembled the women in the photo. I had only a vague desire that the cast would reflect its sentiment. And when the three actors were casted, it was just that. It was as if the movie was casted by the three actors instead of the movie casting them. The presence and harmony of the three actors was so immaculate that it does feel like the film was made for the three actors to convene.”
The film focuses on three under-valued employees of Samjin Company. Without the requisite college degrees, no matter how skilled or smart the women may be, they have little chance at promotion. That is, until the company announces that those who ace an English class may be promotion material. All three women are smart, work hard in English class and already know some valuable company trivia. Those skills come in handy when they discover and want to expose company corruption. “Even a worm will turn,” they learn to say in English class.
Inspiration for the feel-good film came slowly and from various sources.
“First, I set a theme, ‘marginalized people who are often depreciated come together to solve problems.’ Then I approached this theme from various angles. For example, I conducted comprehensive research around actual incidents of environmental pollution and whistleblowers in Korean society. At the same time, I also obsessively listened to songs by 90s female pop stars such as Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and TLC. Finishing the script took me almost a year.”
The inspirational mix of pop-star girl-power and whistleblowing courage created a movie in which three women take on the system and discover their own strength in the process.
Samjin Company: English Class is Lee’s third time directing and writing. His previous films are The Sound of a Flower, about a pansori singer, and Born To Sing, a film about a singing contest. Samjin Company English Class does not have a musical theme, but the comedy/drama was a fun way for Lee to pose a few questions.
“This film asks a universal question, ‘Why do humans work?’, which I think foreign audiences can also identify with,” said Lee. “I also set the film in the 90s to respond to the question, ‘Is the world getting worse?’ The film replies with a sense of optimism, and I hope that this message of hope will reach the international audience who are together enduring the harsh new circumstances in the pandemic era.”
As well as directing and screenwriting, Lee has acted in TV dramas such as The Man From Nowhere. The experience of being an actor has proven valuable in communicating with his cast.
“When I was an actor, I realized that it is an extremely solitary job,” said Lee. “As a director, I try my best to make the actor feel less isolated by having many conversations with the actors before the filming. So when they arrive at the set, they trust me and can focus on their art. I also don’t enforce my vision upon them. I simply standby with affection. In the process, there are these brilliant moments that we can embrace together.”
While winning the Baeksang Award for best film was a happy surprise, the cast and crew of the film did hope for and work toward the best possible outcome.
“While making the film, the staff, actors and myself truly believed in what we were creating together,” said Lee. “So we all desperately wanted the film to reach many people and share its heartwarming and gripping story.”
Lee is currently working on a new film.
“Although the style is completely different from Samjin Company English Class, it is also a story of an individual overcoming obstacles set by the overpowering social structures.”
His favorite scene in Samjin Company English Class? It relates to the photo that originally inspired him.
“My favorite scene is the opening scene, where a crowd of female characters fill the entire screen,” said Lee. “Such a scene is uncommon in Asian films, and I really wanted to make it. Every time I watch it again, I am immensely moved by its cinematic style.”
Samjin Company English Class can be online seen at the New York Asian Film Festival.