Everyone loves a story where the little guy takes on the bigwigs, but it’s especially poignant in the case of 2014 Korean film Cart – with feminist themes, it’s great to see a huge thumbs up for equality so prominent in Korean media, packaged as a drama-film-turned-social critique.

Meek mother-of-two Sun-Hee (Yum Jung-Ah) has slaved away daily, working unpaid overtime without complaint, for five years at a big-name supermarket to make ends meet. With an absent husband and a promotion to a full-time position dangling before her, Sun-Hee and her fellow contracted coworkers suddenly find themselves out of a job, their contracts terminated illegally. Brave single mother Hye-Mi (Moon Jeong-Hee) and aging janitor Soon-Rye (Kim Young-Ae) propose to form a union and fight the unfair dismissal, and a huge ongoing struggle ensues between the ousted workers and the supermarket management, whose only concern is their own bottom line.

Based on a true story involving a Korean supermarket chain and a 512 day strike after they replaced temporary workers with outsourced employees to avoid a new law requiring temporary workers to be granted regular-worker status after a certain period, director Boo Ji-Young‘s dramatised version of the events is as heartbreaking as it is entertaining. Having premiered at the Cart is an emotional ride due to its character focus – Sun-Hee has obviously never stood up for herself before, and her reluctance to do so is something many can relate to. While she is discovering her own power and finding a strength she didn’t know she possessed, her two children, Tae-Young (played by EXO’s D.O) and Ok-Soon (Hwang Jeong-Min), are impatient with their mother – they don’t understand her sudden drive for protest, nor why they’re now living on cup ramen.

Visually warm and close, like a mother’s arms, Cart‘s camerawork is all about focussing on the face with lots of close-ups and mid-shots to best express each character’s emotion. Lead cast ladies Yum Jung-Ah, Moon Jeong-Hee and Kim Young-Ae are all solid in their roles – very different personalities united against the big biz that wronged them – but it was EXO member D.O who caught me by surprise as a very believable moody, terse and petulant teenager, so frustrated with his underprivileged homelife that he secretly obtains a part time job at a convenience store to attend a school trip. D.O’s acting was subtle and smooth – a vast departure from some other idol performances I’ve seen – and his innocent doe-eyed face somehow made his arrogance only more charming. Another standout was the charming manager Dong-Joon (Kim Kang-Woo), one of few higher-ups who’d taken the time to get to know his staff and was unable to stand by as they were coldly mistreated. Kim Kang-Woo‘s honest face and kind eyes perfectly complemented his character’s resilience and reluctance to settle.

The score for Cart is appropriately quirky and cute, with lilting clarinet lines, acoustic guitars, pizzicato strings and woodwinds providing the bulk of the musical accompaniment.

Though the film’s pace never dragged nor felt too fast, its ending seemed too soon, too unresolved. Though at the time it was frustrating, with a little distance between me and the film I think it may have been a good thing – the workers from the real situation the film is based on didn’t all get their jobs back, and the fight for gender equality in the workplace is ongoing, so it seems fitting that perhaps the story doesn’t end here – even if the film does.

Having taken out the Woman of the Year in Film award at the 15th Women in Film Korea awards and the 51st Baeksang Arts Awards’ best actress gong for Yum Jung-Ah and best screenplay for Kim Kyung-Chan, Cart is just as likely to pull a tear as to lift your spirits. It is a great family film, an inspiring story and sends a message that is highly relevant around the world today.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Running Time: 104 minutes (w/English Subtitles)

Cart was reviewed at KOFFIA 2015.