‘Factory Complex’: Film Review

Im Heung-soon’s documentary feaures interviews with female South Korean workers who describe their oppressive working conditions.

The harrowing plight of female factory workers in South Korea and Cambodia over several decades is revealed in Im Heung-soon’s documentary largely composed of talking-head interviews. Featuring commentary from dozens of women who describe their horrific workplace conditions with attitudes ranging from resigned to mournful to angry, Factory Complex powerfully illustrates how much reform is still needed. The doc recently received its U.S. premiere courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real non-fiction film series.

Some of the material will be familiar to Western viewers who will have read news reports about the labor conditions and strikes at such companies as Samsung and Daewoo. But the film concentrates less on specific corporations than on the moving testimony of the workers who describe the long hours, unsafe environments, harassment by employers, low pay and other physically and emotionally debilitating factors. One subject remembers a phrase written on the wall of a changing room: “Let’s get out of here alive.”  

The Bottom Line

Timely and important.

The problems aren’t just with manufacturing plants. Reflecting the modernization that has taken place in recent decades, we also hear from flight attendants, shopping mall employees and call center workers who also endure harsh working conditions. When workers attempt to protest or strike, they’re often met with harsh retaliation and violence, as footage of a 2014 demonstration in Cambodia for higher wages, in which five people were killed, vividly illustrates.

The filmmaker relieves the visual monotony of the interviews by interspersing footage of numerous work environments, as well as poetic, sometimes surreal imagery including scenes set in nature and such provocative visuals as a young girl standing blindfolded on a garbage-strewn rooftop.

Of all the interview subjects, only one is male. He’s a photographer who talks about his experience taking pictures of the newly hired female employees of a textile company who had been showered with excrement by their male co-workers in protest of the new co-ed working conditions. The irony of his presence, needless to say, is more than obvious.  

Venue: Art of the Real
Director-screenwriter-director of photography: Im Heung-soon
Producer: Kim Min-kyung

Not rated, 92 minutes