In present day Cambodia, a protest about poor working conditions escalates to tragedy. Director Lim Heung-soon explores this by...interviewing employees in Korean industries. The juxtaposition isn't as random as it may initially sound. Once upon a time South Korea too had a dictatorial business system comparable to Cambodia's today. The women who participated in this system did so for the hopes of a better life for their children. And yet in the present day, the vestiges of this system yet remain in the "Factory Complex" of maximized productivity.
The irony's a pretty unshakable one. Even if South Korea has eventually managed to progress to to the point where worker protests don't end with gunshots, beyond that token dignity, the situation doesn't seem that much better. Everybody heard about MERS outbreak that hit South Korea this year, which only existed because one hospital used very poor sanitary procedures and only killed people who were already sick to start out with. But who heard about the Samsung workers who got leukemia?
The answer to that question, on the most basic depressing level, is that its shock value which drives media coverage rather than what happens in day-to-day life. Director Lim Heung-soon recognizes that, and consequently presents us with images of aesthetically ugly South Korea- the country of ramshackle buildings quickly built up and quickly disposed because it's cheaper to make new buildings than refurbish the old ones. So people live in the old ones- the same people with limited enough economic opportunity to work in these structures of ill-repute.
You can perhaps see how the Cambodian comparison only become more and more relevant. Cambodia definitely occupies a similar yet different place on the modernization timeline. Notice how the women in the Cambodia factories are all wearing bizarre, random t-shirts presumably selected on the fabric quality. This even though the market value of these shirts is not their practical usability, but the cultural references emblazoned upon them. Cambodia now makes arbitrary products for Koreans that the Koreans use to make for other more "advanced" countries.
Those quotation marks are quite necessary, by the way. A skilled tourist department can do very good work manipulating images such that we think the "true" appearance of a country are its mostly fashionably appearing landmarks. But as anyone who has wandered around an area with genuine randomness can attest, most construction is functional, not pleasurable. People had to work to get this stuff built. And they did this not for the sheer joy of the task, but because they needed the money.
"Factory Complex" is at its best when director Lim Heung-soon is delving into this imagery, and just showing us what these places look like. In South Korea, Cambodia, or anywhere else, we're always looking at the same general story of development. Beyond that...well, the class commentary is an obvious one. And really, I don't think it's possible to make any kind of pro-factory factory documentary short of just being absurdist propaganda. But for me at least, the more interesting story is how Cambodia and South Korea have an awful lot in common considering how obviously different they are.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Factory Complex""
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