Little man takes on hypermart

K-drama Awl is based on a true-life story about the unionisation of workers

In Awl, a hypermarket manager (Ji Hyun Woo) fights against his French employer for employees' rights.
In Awl, a hypermarket manager (Ji Hyun Woo) fights against his French employer for employees' rights.PHOTO: YOUTUBE
In Reply 1988, a love triangle between teen friends (from left, Hye Ri, Go Kyung Pyo and Ryu Jun Yeol) takes shape.
In Reply 1988, a love triangle between teen friends (from left, Hye Ri, Go Kyung Pyo and Ryu Jun Yeol) takes shape.PHOTO: STARHUB

Incomplete Life, a hit on the top South Korean cable channel tvN last year, was a singular drama that found poetry and meaning in the buzz of the office.

It also traced a path that the channel's closest rival, JTBC, has now followed with Awl, a rousing true-life drama about the unionisation of workers at a French hypermarket in South Korea.

Awl, like Incomplete Life, is drawn from a Web cartoon (they are called webtoons in Korea) and has the stylistic devices to show for it. And unlike Incomplete Life, which keeps a cooler head, Awl has as much emotional heat as dramas including The Chaser (2012) and Punch (2014), in which the little people fight for justice and take matters into their own hands.


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The bright white lights of the hypermarket fade to blackness, as Lee Soo In (Ji Hyun Woo), the manager of the produce section, contemplates unenforced labour laws that are as useless as broken traffic lights.

A former soldier and a lifelong square peg, he has declared war on his employer after he defied an order to bully his subordinates into quitting.

The company seeks to save on termination and employment costs by making the retail staff resign and replacing them with temporary workers. However, Lee is determined to stand in management's way, starting with educating his colleagues, a gaggle of older women and younger men, about their rights.

And as a green man lights up in the show's metaphorical backdrop, Lee gives a command to his troops, who have never been paid for working overtime: "Morning shift! Go home."

Much of the drama and comedy in the show also turns on Lee's own education on the road to labour activism.

His teacher is Goo Go Shin (Ahn Nae Sang), a labour law consultant who has the manner and the method of a charming, well-informed gangster. (The drama opens with Goo amiably blackmailing a Chinese restaurant boss into compensating an unpaid former employee.)

When Lee is being too high-minded and principled, Goo reminds him labour activism isn't pretty: "For petty, powerless people, we fight petty, powerful people."

When he fails to recruit more workers into the union, Goo coaches him to court Joo Gang Min, an assistant manager who is more well-liked at the hypermarket. Sadly - and funnily - Lee is so stiff and intense that he is mistaken for a stalker.

Later, he succeeds in winning over Joo and many others, only to be soundly beaten by the assistant manager in an election to the post of union organiser. It is a bittersweet result and the drama doesn't remark on it much.

But the significance of the election may be buried in flashbacks to Lee's years in the army, when he was taught to protect democracy.

Now, through his work in the union, he's having a first-hand experience of empowering people: After you liberate them, like it or not, they're free to not vote for you.

At tvN, the Reply series is pushing further and further back into nostalgia. Reply 1997, in 2012, returned to the infancy of K-pop. Reply 1994, in 2013, visited the history of K-drama.

Now, Reply 1988 returns to the time when the Seoul Olympics were on the horizon and every Korean teenager's favourite movie was 1987's A Better Tomorrow II, apparently, but stasis soon sets in.

The show has dutifully changed the young characters (played by Hye Ri, Ryu Jun Yeol and Go Kyung Pyo, among others), clothes and pop-culture references.

But what it hasn't changed, despite a new focus on the characters' families, is the central conceit of the series.

Once more, you are to guess who the female protagonist (Hye) is married to in the present, Mr Right (the quietly protective male played by Ryu) or Mr Perfect (the good-looking, nice prefect played by Go)?

But by now, you should be able to figure out the answer from the order the actors are billed in.

Minus the romantic suspense, the drama doesn't quite gather momentum.

However, the show has good cut-and-keep moments, the best of which centre on the loneliness of Ryu's rich parents. And it is still capable of reducing you to simultaneous tears and laughter, like a page out of an old, precious photo album.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2015, with the headline 'Little man takes on hypermart'. Subscribe