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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Busan 2014 Review: FACTORY COMPLEX, An Artful Look At Korea's Beleaguered Workforce

Part of MKC's coverage of the 19th Busan International Film Festival

By Pierce Conran

It's no secret that workers are subjected to punishing conditions and constant humiliation in Korea, a country that has made the news recently for having the longest work hours and yet the least productivity among all OECD nations. New documentary Factory Complex, through a mixture of earnest interviews and juxtaposed, mood-setting shots, offers an involving perspective on the issue, which subtlety invokes the larger issues at play, such as how people treat each other in a highly hierarchical and patriarchal society.

Opening in a Cambodian sweatshop, which is run by a Korean conglomerate, Factory Complex examines the plight of the underpaid and overworked and within a few minutes escalates into a shocking portrait of a strike that quickly turned bloody for labor unions at the factory. Director Im Heung-soon then slows things right down with a series of achingly beautiful and silent shots of a forgotten Cambodian ruin.

After setting the mood with this gripping opening salvo, Im sets his focus on Korea, where he interviews employees in various industries, starting with textile factory laborers and moving on to increasingly more coveted jobs, starting with supermarket cashiers, film set workers, and airline hostesses. Through the talking heads, he examines the similar conditions they all face and the constant degradation they are subjected to on a daily basis.

Factory Complex benefits from a calm and focused direction that seeks not to sensationalise labor dispute milestones, which are each afforded a simple, explanatory intertitle between the segments devoted to each industry, but instead allows the information gleaned from long-suffering workers' testimonies, to speak for themselves. Punctuating the proceedings with languid photography of the highlighted work environments, either coldly fixed or ominously tracking, such as along the interminable length of the factory floor in Cambodia, Im lets his film breath and invites us to draw comparison from what we witness, yet never pushes us to a foregone conclusion.

Im's artistic leanings demonstrate themselves in a few key sequences, such as the moody and foreboding collection of shots taken in a night-time, underlit supermarket. Photographed by some of the overworked crew members featured earlier on and adorned with symbolic props, such as a mannequin's arm nestled among a bunch of vegetables, the images take on a surreal air. Though the film is filled with interviews, the inclusion of these ethereal visual cues mean amplifies and aerates what could otherwise have been burdened by lengthy testimonials.

Employing a similar approach and aesthetic, Im's new film resembles his debut Jeju Prayer, which premiered at the Jeonju Film Festival in 2012, in many ways. But with more relatable characters and global themes, Factory Complex is a far more accessible film. Given the images of labor riots among different sectors of Korea, it could also serve as a companion piece to another film playing at the Busan Film Festival this year, Boo Ji-young's Cart, a film dealing with the plight of part-time workers who go on strike at a supermarket.

Dealing less with fact and more with mood, Factory Complex is a documentary that uses its talking heads and lightly detailed conflicts to serve as an emblem from problems that plague the breadth of Korea's work industry, and, even more importantly, on the basic value and systems of communication and societal standing in a country whose economy has been afforded much swifter growth that its social fabric.


This review originally appeared on

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