Exploited temp workers at a big-box store in South Korea organize themselves to fight layoffs in “Cart,” a standard-issue pic that hits all the expected notes about a standard issue. Based on a real case, this solidly made sophomore feature by Boo Ji-young (“Sisters on the Road”) is the kind of earnestly crafted labor-rights drama in which various characters, each a distinct type, band together to fight against evil suits. It’s a worthy story but too familiar to play much beyond Korean showcases overseas; at home, “Cart” totaled more than 800,000 admissions, with takings exceeding $5 million.
“Welcome beloved customer!” is the management-enforced greeting at the Mart, a retail behemoth whose cashiers and cleaners are all temporary hires on limited contracts (the film is patently designed to draw attention to this acute South Korean situation). Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah, “The Old Garden”) is an ever-cheery worker with five years at the store, expecting her contractual position will ultimately evolve into full-time employment. With her absent husband working long-haul maritime gigs, Sun-hee needs a steady salary to support their two kids, which is why she’s always willing to work extra shifts.
Less chirpy is single mom Hye-mi (Moon Jung-hee, “Hide and Seek”), especially when she’s forced by toadying manager Choi (Lee Seung-jun) to apologize on her knees to a customer suspected, quite rightly, of shoplifting. Even though conditions aren’t ideal, the women laboring at the Mart need their jobs, which is why disbelief followed by anger sets in when they all get SMS notices saying they’ve been terminated. It takes a bit of convincing, but the ladies organize themselves and call a strike.
There’s a particularly well-handled scene in which scabs, dressed in white, enter the Mart and clash with the strikers, all in pink T-shirts — the color-contrasting choreography keeps things clear and cinematic. Otherwise, much of “Cart” is routine stuff, filling in the lives of some of the women with scenes at home, and later condensing their backgrounds via a montage of each one standing up at a gathering to tell of their plight. Sun-hee’s teen son Tae-young (K-pop star Doh Kyung-soo) gets his own storyline: Furious with his mother for not having the money to pay for a school trip, he takes a part-time job and, discovering how horrid bosses can be, quickly comes to understand Mom’s sacrifices.
Also tossed in is young assistant manager Dong-jun (Kim Kang-woo, “The Taste of Money”), who forfeits his stable position to side with the workers and gets elected union leader — sisters aren’t quite doin’ it for themselves after all, which feels like a betrayal of what was shaping up to be a femme-empowerment story. The women are sympathetic (if largely one-dimensional) and their cause just, but the script feels cobbled together from a primer on how to make a labor-rights movie, putting its greatest effort into communicating its outrage at South Korea’s untenable employment situation. Presumably it was this message that spurred the public to chip in $186,000 during the pre-production crowdfunding campaign, so at least they’re unlikely to be disappointed. Visuals will play equally well on smallscreens.