For the first several scenes of “Koala” the general unpleasantness of being a young person in South Korea these days is played out. Dong-bin (played by Park Yeong-seo) had a dream of being an actor, and now he’s just a salaryman. Jong-ik (played by Song Yoo-ha) is still attempting to be an actor, and it’s not fun. Mutually, Dong-bin and Jong-ik decide to take a shot at deciding their own destiny for a change. Henceforth, they open a Burger Boy franchise location.
The main point writer/director Kim Joo-hwan-I is gunning for here regards the importance of friendship and how some may find a better purpose in life by selling hamburgers. Of course, Dong-bin and Jong-ik are happier selling hamburgers than where they were before more because of the personal touch than due to any innate feature of hamburgers as food. At the end of the day they can unwind, get a drink, and reminisce about the difficulties involved in working retail. This struggle creates solidarity.
Weirdly enough this thematic point is best emphasized, not by Dong-bin or Jong-ik, but by Woo-ri (played by Park Jin-joo), who takes a surprisingly long time to actually meet the other two main characters. This is a shame because of the three, Woo-ri’s story is by far the best. She works service in a very unforgiving environment. Woo-ri’s situation is so bad that she even toys with the idea of working at a “kissing cafe” which uh, sounds really gross, whatever it is.
The personal touches, and how they relate to real people, are by far the best aspects of “Koala”. It’s the little questions that are most interesting. What is the appropriate reaction when a burger is ruined? How difficult does the work have to be before hiring another employee becomes necessary? What degree of perks is ethically appropriate? How can all the numbers be put in such a way that running a franchise restaurant is financially viable compared to going back to your old life?
These little questions take preeminence over plot, and “Koala” is better for that. Even when no larger goal is achieved, Dong-bin, Jong-ik, and Woo-ri derive immediate satisfaction from successfully pulling off a large, difficult order in a short amount of time. Yes the money is important and drives everything but ultimately, it is a symbol of success rather than success incarnate. In this way “Koala” delves into questions of happiness, defining struggle itself as the road by which its leads gain an improved outlook on life.
The film also touches, however incidentally, on the little foibles that are inherent to anyone trying to go into the small franchise restaurant business. The details are, at times, pretty monotonous, and the few accidents that pop up are liable to make you worry about just what happens to the food you eat, and how many mistakes may have been involved in its preparation. Tempting as it may be to think otherwise, the people who make our burgers are, indeed, people, not robots.
Review by William Schwartz
“Koala” is directed by Kim Joo-hwan-I and features Park Yeong-seo, Song Yoo-ha and Park Jin-joo.
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