The winner of the Silver Lion at this year’s La Biennale di Venezia, Im Heung-soon’s documentary film Factory Complex is an ode to the female working poor. The film provides a lens into the often unseen world of working women’s rights and serves as a historical record that highlights their ongoing struggle, as hard-won changes are swallowed up in a rapidly modernising world.

Dedicated to the working women in his own family, Factory Complex combines investigative journalism features with experimental, artistic imagery. Interviews with former and current workers are interspersed with symbolic scenes of young girls walking blindfolded, feeling for their surroundings as dissonant music plays in the background. Having no choice but to enter (or being directly lured after graduating high school) blue collar jobs, the scenes highlight the perversity and hardship of exploitation from a young age.

The film’s timeline of ‘factory girls’ starts in 1960s Korea and covers incidents such as the Daewoo Apparel and Kiryung Electronics protests against precarious employment and cases of leukaemia being reported amongst Samsung workers. The women talk candidly about their experiences and it makes for pretty emotional viewing. One woman recounts becoming a seamstress at age 17 in Pyeonghwa Market. Another cries as she remembers the moment she lost her hair during chemotherapy treatment for a work-induced cancer. Another still recalls a protest slogan, “We want to wear Nike too”. Unable to afford the very products they slaved over for hours to make, the phrase embodies the powerlessness of a deceived, trusting youth.

The film then moves on to coverage of women currently working in similar garment factories in Cambodia. The situation of Korean female workers forty years ago is now their reality, as many developed Asian countries outsource their work to other South-East Asian nations. There is confronting footage of police brutality against protesting workers, as their pleas for better working conditions are only met with violence and death. It is a sobering reminder that the root of the problem of oppressed workers has yet to be truly addressed.

Factory Complex concludes by returning to the reality of the female working poor today, such as flight attendants and call centre employees. Having come full circle, the film’s symmetry compounds the hopelessness of their situation and hits the viewer hard.

The film is undeniably pared back – the eerie shots of the workplaces and interviewees are allowed to speak for themselves. The mood and pace is languid but tinged with an undeniable sorrow, as the audience is made to think twice about the hidden struggles of the working poor. Its characters have many questions but nobody can or is willing to answer them, revealing the true extent of their uncertain existence. As the credits roll, the lyrics from its background song suddenly become all the more poignant: “If you have wealth, is it enough?”


Running Time: 95 minutes (w/ English Subtitles)

‘Factory Complex’ screened at KOFFIA 2015, where it was originally reviewed, and published 17th August 2015.

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