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'He's on Duty' falters in satirizing social issues

2010/10/14 Source

By Lee Hyo-won

It's about time ― foreign residents comprise an increasingly larger portion of Korea's colorful demographic, and local cinema has finally found apt inspiration in the hushed woes of migrant workers.

"He's on Duty" follows in the footsteps of Sin Dong-il's emotional teen drama "Bandhobi", which was the first film other than stark documentaries to focus on the subject, and moreover, makes a big leap by harnessing the matter to comical ends.

Currently ranked third in the box office since its release Sept. 30, the comedy has certainly made a mark in terms of turning an overlooked social issue into mainstream entertainment that really sells ― through word of mouth and positive reviews by netizens rather than special marketing tricks.

This sleeper hit owes much of its success to front man Kim In-kwon ("Haeundae"), and it definitely brims with ticklish humor as well as dashes of drama and even romance.

Yet the impressive stride the film has managed isn't necessarily an entirely "progressive" one per se ― sugarcoating a less-than-pretty reality may help the audience stomach the story but at the same time this renders the film's inherent flaws more palpable.

Bang Tae-sik (Kim) is perennially unemployed as he drifts from one job to another, from manual labor to serving coffee. His appearance, being rather atypical for a Korean is to blame it seems, but best buddy Yong-cheol (Kim Jung-tae) persuades Tae-sik to make better use of these disadvantages: Desperate and having nothing better to do, he adopts a strange accent and ethnic hat and is reborn as Banga (a twist on his family name) from Bhutan, and immediately lands a job at a chair manufacturing factory.

Despite a shaky beginning ― due to his unredeemable clumsiness, rather than doubts about his alleged Bhutani roots that are all too convincing ― Tae-sik gets along with his co-workers, and even starts romancing the lovely Jang-mi from Vietnam (newcomer actress Shin Hyun-bin). He is even voted to become president of a migrant workers labor union and competent Korean language instructor, and joins in a harmonious effort to win a local singing competition for foreigners.

Tae-sik begins to truly bond with his co-workers but his loyalties are put to the test when Yong-cheol finds a way to swindle their money.

The film obviously appeals to audiences through satirizing the unhealthy "lookism" that permeates society as well as addressing the high unemployment rate among youths. But that said, director Yook Sang-hyo likes to stay far away from darker elements. Much like his previous piece "Hi Dharma 2: Showdown in Seoul", "Duty" is devoid of truly nasty villains. The factory executive is certainly despicable but is depicted in a less cruel fashion, and toning things down keeps things rather anticlimactic and the film often resorts to Hollywood-manufactured formulas to elicit programmed responses from viewers.

The film is however propelled by its characters. Kim In-kwon, who has long played memorable supporting characters, shines in his first lead role, while Kim Jung-tae delivers some great slapstick moments.

The foreign cast members are also very convincing. Unfortunately the director fails to make use of the potentially rich drama and character development these amateur actors could have offered, such as Al's Uncle Tom-esque role and Jang-mi's desperate attempts to attain Korean citizenship. These shortcomings make room for more projects that could offer something critically incisive while still entertaining.

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