Globalization is a theme on many business-people’s minds—even Korean gangsters know about the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. When a Korean gang embarks on a globalization journey by having one of their leaders join a multinational corporation to learn the ins-and-outs of business leadership, hilarity can only ensue. The Mafia, the Salesman certainly lives up to expectations of a light-hearted comedy. Directed by Shim Seung-bo, the film deploys Lee Sung Jae as its lead; Lee plays gangster Gye Doo-shik, who is aiming to gain the skills needed to succeed in the cut-throat world of business.
The Mafia, the Salesman begins with very humorous scenes of a backwater street gang’s attempts to learn about the globalization economy; set in the context of the Korea-US FTA, subtle jabs are made at the potential for US companies to take over market share from Korean companies and ultimately absorb them. At the same time, gangster Doo-shik’s attempts to climb his way up the corporate ladder from lowly insurance salesman to the prestigious “planning division” are equally hilarious, as he must attempt to hide his gangster career from his coworkers and his newfound workplace crush—all while learning how to use email.
At the same time the film tries to present a comedy, The Mafia, the Salesman touches upon some issues facing Korean salarymen today—in particular, the treatment of loyal salarymen when business interests get in the way. A worker union protest, which aims to stop the international merger of the Korean chaebol Doo-shik works for, is challenged by hired hands who try to break up the union camp. In this scene, Doo-shik falls in the awkward position of being a gangster who has to wage war against other gangsters to defend his coworkers and his crush.
However, The Mafia, the Salesman utterly fails in any role as a serious, society-hitting film—while it may touch on some points about globalization and its effects on the everyday worker, it doesn’t explore this theme very deeply. The focus of the film is more on the “action” of Doo-shik’s fighting and the slapstick comedic effects of his fellow gangsters, rather than any personal drama that may evolve from a gangster learning about globalizing workforces. I could have imagined The Mafia, the Salesman to be a great drama about a gangster’s relationship with everyday salarymen who feel that globalization and the legitimate workplace are oppressive to their happiness, a sentiment that many readers may share.
However, in reality, The Mafia, the Salesman was just another comedy that, if shot in the United States, I could have easily imagined Seth Rogen starring in. It is not a particularly spectacular film, and while it may elicit some cheap laughs, I would not have missed out on anything particularly significant should I have skipped it altogether. If you’re drunk on soju and looking for easy comedy, The Mafia, The Salesman is it.
The Mafia, the Salesman (Korean: 상사부일체). South Korea. Directed by Shim Seung-bo. First released September 2007. Running time 1hr 50min. Starring Lee Sung-jae, Seo Ji-hye, and Kim Sung-min.