We watched the insightful documentary ‘Factory Complex’ (2015) as part of the London Korean Film Festival, which is touring several major cities in the UK this year! Im Heung Soon’s understated film was awarded the Silver Lion at the 56th International Venice Art Biennale.
Looking at the surface of modern day South Korea, you would think that during the time of rapid economic development, the majority of its citizens would have been presented with abounding opportunities and shared wealth for all. ‘Factory Complex’ is a thought-provoking film that brings stories of working class women to the fore, starting from those told by 1960’s seamstresses in the textile industry moving to those that were involved in the early electronics industry, continuing through to more modern examples of women employed in call centres, flight attendants, and supermarket cashiers. Female labourers were often victimised and oppressed in the 60’s, even to the extent that male colleagues smeared human excrement on them. They also lived through state-sanctioned opposition. In more recent times, women have been working in poor and unsafe conditions, for long hours with low pay.
Director Im Heung-soon allows the women to take centre stage, allowing them to simply give their testimonies in front of the camera. He makes use of still images and scatters them among more artistic and provocative scenes set up to invite the audience to think more deeply about aspects of the subject matter. He was also brave in including instances without dialogue, with only background noise to break the stillness he had captured. The balance between incorporation of moments of artistic creativity amongst serious journalism is made with care here. These breaks also made for effective transitions between interviews.
We thought that some of the stories were astonishing, those interviewed had each endured such physical and emotional hardships. One lady described how she had been a bus conductor, and finished work at 2am after being made to clean the entire bus, only to have to resume work at 4.15am. She suffered from swollen legs, yet still could not earn enough to pay her rent on time. She took on another job as a seamstress and made hundreds of garments everyday, yet could not afford to buy one for herself. Another told of a hunger strike, undertaken in a desperate attempt to get a company to pay attention to the plight of the workers. The woman interviewed had made it to 94 days, until her colleagues brought her to hospital. Tears fell from her eyes as she stated that she had almost given up her life, but it hadn’t made any difference whatsoever. One company even cleared out and moved their offices without giving any warning to their workers.
That’s not to say that there are not moments that will make you smile! There was an instance where workers adopted a phrase uttered by one of the younger girls as their union slogan, ‘we want to wear Nike shoes too!’
It was disheartening to discover that so many hardworking women were made to sacrifice so much of their livelihood and wellbeing during those times, especially when all that they asked for was suitable working conditions and the means to support their immediate family. One call centre worker spoke of how she felt she had given up so much for her job, having worked continuously through her 20s, 30s, and now 40s. Despite that, she cannot pay for her child’s after school activities or give her parents any allowance, and struggles with rent. She finished by saying, very pragmatically, that when she becomes elderly and ill, she thinks that she will most likely have to make the decision to die.
Female factory workers in Cambodia were also featured, swiftly followed by a harrowing scene from 2014, graphically showing armed forces opening fire on those working for a Korean company. They were punished for trying to stand up for an increase in their working wage. When the average wage of the factory workers is around 80-95 USD and one garment is sold for 40-50 USD, the way these women are exploited is uncalled for. Parallels were alluded to, between historical events in South Korea and the labour situation which Cambodia now finds itself in.
‘Factory Complex’ made us think twice about the workers behind the products we readily consume in the throwaway culture we see today. We applaud Im Heung Soon for creating a platform where these brave women’s voices could be heard, and rightfully respected for all that they have been through.
Featured image source: © Factory Complex. Im Heung Soon. 23.11.2016. London Korean Film festival 2016 website.