Awl ~ Review ~ Dramajjang
“There is at least one man who will break through,
Break through the fear that there might not be another chance.
Driven by the power beyond his control,
He will break out of that thick shell of fear and inertia
And he will step into the unknown world.
A man like an awl.”
Undeniably, jTBC, OCN and tvN sometimes are the leading brigades that take South Korean dramas one or more steps forward with the works they present on screen. Awl was jTBC’s last drama attempt for 2015 and it was a masterful journey into the real world as it was being filtered through a wide variety of prisms by emphasizing on the daily lives of ordinary people like you, people like me.
Based on Choi Gyu Seok’s webcomic Songgot which was influenced by real events that took place in South Korea a few years ago, Awl is a raised drama fist against wage slavery, worker exploitation through different employment statuses, various faces of oppression inside a work environment and the way they affect people’s lives behind the scenes and on the spot. It’s also an ode to strength through unity, employee rights and the power and necessity of labor unions in modern societies without hallowing them.
The scenario isn’t something beyond imagination and it’s as real as it can get. So, if you’re watching dramas to escape reality don’t expect to stay away from it with Awl, but chances are high you’ll gain something since the drama is thought-provoking and meaningful to the fullest. Director Kim Suk Yoon and screenwriters Lee Nam Kyu and Kim Soo Jin had worked together in a variety of movie and drama projects in the past, it was just an aspect of what made the power of their collaboration shine through Awl behind the cameras.
Lee Su In (Ji Hyun Woo – Trot Lovers, Angry Mom) always had an alert sense of justice, but military life didn’t suit him since it didn’t preserve everything he expected. However, it played an important part in the way he was interpreting things and after he was discharged he started working as a manager at a retail market where injustice started reigning supreme the moment their superiors asked the manager department to fire everyone under their lead. Forming a labor union to protect employees’ rights was more than urgent and Koo Ko Shin (Ahn Nae Sang – a man of many dramas), a labor law consultant, entered Su In and everyone’s lives; inevitably!
Just like real life teaches us every day, nobody’s irreplaceable in front of the teeth of the money-making machine, not even the hunting dogs of those pulling the strings for their own benefit. Everyone has an expiration date, like products, and that’s the reason why people are nothing more than numbers in front of the higher-ups who profit over the employees’ hard work. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer is the one and and only policy of enterprises and companies and Awl is a visual dart straight in the system’s motionless heart where money trades life for financial gain.
Awl emphasizes on how orders affect both the superiors’ and their subordinates’ mindset either in an alienating and/or emotionally constructive way in between storms. Awl deconstructs people and society and blends their internal and external world in a pragmatic yet eruptive amalgam bringing people closer together and/or tearing them apart, solely and as a whole, given the circumstances and each and every character’s background, way of thinking and position in the company’s hierarchy.
Picky solidarity, seniority and inveteracy over an excessive sense of unity and comradeship couldn’t be missing as they often short out the higher cause’s circuit while enlarging the chasm between those who shouldn’t stand asunder. Turning one against another is the system’s most powerful weapon as humans will be humans and the divide and conquer campaign rages on with the higher-ups enjoying the working class’ civil wars over trivial matters which strengthen the system’s one and only nature; money-making without remorse. Awl is a battlefield upon a chessboard where the first side preserves fair living over impoverished survival and the second one places overflowing and excessive profit over everything else in a world where numbers impersonate lives; mercilessly.
Where there’s inequality, women forcefully become the weaker sex through psychological abuse and there are times when physical violence may occur for the harm to reach completion. Awl clearly depicts the discrimination against women in work places where men are the leading figures and impose their orders by any means necessary. Awl isn’t only a demonstration of employees’ rights, it also infuses the necessity for pragmatic gender equality in a work environment where arbitrariness may reach unwelcome peaks in order for the system’s cogwheels to keep rotating according to plan behind its democratic facade.
Awl gives voice to the temporary workers, the ones who are always the first ones to get fired in order for a new generation of temporary workers to follow their preset fate. The fear of losing their job anytime soon is an ongoing state of mind, but so is the humiliating sense of obedience to maintain their position for as long as possible making them modern slaves in front of the company’s will. Needless to say that the methods a company may use to progress its own plans against its employees vary, mentally and physically, with all the collisions in between.
In South Korean dramas the police force has a very specific presentation which doesn’t live up to any expectations; usually. Setting aside the fact that it’s their job to keep citizens safe, once in a while it’s quite refreshing to witness the real nature of the police force which is no other than forcing a violent sense of normality straight from the heart of the state which is no other than drowning in teargas and beating up a country’s less fortunate citizens the moment they fight for their rights. If one of the system’s parameters, a profitable company for example, appears to be in danger after neglecting the laws while the employees crave for justice this is when the police force will interfere to aid the company. Wearing a uniform doesn’t make one superior or righteous over ordinary citizens, especially when those in uniforms neglect their vows to protect the citizens who are the ones responsible for a police officer’s salary through taxation.
Last but not least, Awl presented the loneliness and further struggles upon leading figures’ shoulders in the shadow of decisions through an ever-flowing sense of consideration when it comes to co-workers. Preserving the essence of life over mere survival and injustice isn’t an easy task, especially when you don’t act on your own, but if you’ve been through hell once you can dive in there anew no matter how different the next pit may appear and regardless of the personal sacrifices. The fact that Awl didn’t beautify the very soul and essence of labor unions was one of its strongest cards since not every labor union leading figure and/or offshoot uses the same methods and/or fights for the same cause while being devoid of personal gain/ambition.
Ko Shin’s office and like-minded labor union aesthetic, the workplace, the rooftop, Su In’s house, the executives’ chambers and limited outdoors shooting, Awl wasn’t demanding in terms of places, but that’s what was making the cinematography factor more demanding in the first place! There was an emphasis on the drama’s ambiance by preserving it to the fullest along with the vibes it should reflect. Awl, with its meaningful simplicity and expressive minimalism, was more than successful through a wide variety of closeups, angles and a brighter, gloomier or simply more clinical sense of lighting that were enriching the characters’ internal world.
Most of the burden was left upon the actors and actresses’ shoulders to keep the drama’s core pounding without fear but with passion, without exaggeration but with purity, without over-dramatizing but through a natural approach. The comic-like sketch presentations along with the deer on the highway and the street lights possessed their own dynamics accompanied by the narrative tone which was reflecting Su In’s thoughts quite often. The excessive use of flashbacks was spot on simply because all of these scenes were appearing in front of the audience for the first time as the present was resembling or differentiating itself from the past.
Everyone who appeared in Awl was exceptional, but the two actors stealing the impressions have to be Ji Hyun Woo and Ahn Nae Sang in a bromance beyond imagination! Ko Shin’s riveting presence, ecstatic temperament and passionate and lurid speech along with his very own scars of the past were forging a one of a kind figure, Ahn Nae Sang was simply unerring! The same applies to Ji Hyun Woo, but through Su In’s very specific characteristics and unconditional sense of duty as a last man standing for this co-workers’ rights! The thirst for knowledge was there, the background from personal experiences too, but there were also the idealist and pure vibes of a figure who wouldn’t like to cause any form of disorder that would wreak havoc among the ranks of the people who entrusted to him their present and future. There was a sense of electricity between Ko Shin and Su In which was skyrocketing both figures somewhere between reality, struggle and absence of hope while yearning for a change!
Awl wasn’t only thought-provoking, inspiring and devastating or nerve-shaking at times, there was also humor which could outweigh anytime the feel-o-meter’s indications! Except for Ko Shin and Su In, there were many figures that had their fair share of laughter-evoking scenes without neglecting their emotionally charged characteristics! Who can forget the Baek Hyun Joo, Lee Jung Eun and Hwang Jung Min ahjumma firepower of the labor union or the mother-son relationship between Shin Yun Sook and Park Si Hwan?! And who would ever set aside the bromance side-stories between Hyun Woo as Joo Kang Min and Yesung as Hwang Joon Chul along with Kang Min and Su In’s very own bromance contours? Kim Hee Won was exceptional as the company’s most faithful and deceived hunting dog along with the other managers, Gaston, the chairman and his right hand lawyer. You really thought i would forget to mention Kim Ga Eun, Koo Ko Shin the second, who stole my heart as the more than adorable and quirky yet thoughtful Moon So Jin? I would never do that!
Awl was reality’s injection in the form of 12 episodes, a demonstration and a reminder of everything that gets subverted day after day inside four walls and between display racks, behind stands and registers, but also underneath the surface. Awl is as impassioned and humane as life and as apathetic and cruel as survival. Which side are you on?