So, this is essentially a biopic aout Jeon Tae-Il, a young labor activist who strove to unionize workers sufffering horrendous working conditions in Korean sweatshops and ultimately ended up immolating himself in protest of labor law violations. This really isn’t a spoiler since its pretty much on the dvd cover.
What is nice about the film is that rather than being a straight-up biopic that simply chronicles Jeon Tae-Il’s life, the story is told from the point of view of a young journalist / scholar / academic who is writing Chun’s biography. This in turn structures the film along two separate time periods and allows us to contrast the past with the present. Plus, it lets the film do some interesting things (albeit not very original) like depicting the past in Black & White.
Seriously, I wanted to like this film so much. I really appreciate the intention here. I understand and appreciate the idea of chronicling the life of a man who seems to have been completely self-driven and who took the initiative to teach himself the labor laws (which seem to have been written in the Chinese script which most Koreans cannot read) and at a young age ended up sacrificing his life for a cause he truly believed in. Unfortunately, the film felt far too jingoistic to me. The dialogue came off as terribly didactic where it was always pointing out its political agenda. In an effort to really bring home the horror of the working conditions at the time, the filmmaker shows us the workers suffering from TB due to inadequate ventilation, the amphetamine injections to keep workers awake and so on. Secondly, the conversations at the secret meetings are just too poignant and idealistic. The villains are all evil ogres who don’t think twice about beating up women and the heroes are all uniformly selfless and noble. This is not helped by the fact that I found some of the acting to be pretty sub-par, especially the actress who plays the journalist’s young pregnant girlfriend. My problems with the dialogue could just be a case of poor translation too though (which I’m always afraid of while reviewing movies for this bracket).
This interlacing of two different time-periods lets the movie run a parallel track where the biographer and his girlfriend are also in a bunch of trouble for their own involvement in the labor movement. The idea here is to highlight how nothing has changed since Jeon Tae-il’s death. Here again, this is done in a really obvious way. The couple is always being chased around by the police, being threatened, beaten up and so on. I really could’ve used a deeper examination of how despite changes in the regime or the laws underlying conditions remain the same or something along those lines.
My favorite parts were the black & white parts which are shot really beautifully and have a documentary-like feel to them. It helps that the story of Jeon Tae-il is inherently powerful and rousing.
The final shot of his self-immolation is striking to look at. I felt a pang of guilt for admiring the filmmaking in display when the scene being portrayed is such a tragic event. Anyway, so the film has a lot of memorable imagery that made it worthwhile for me. At the end of the film, thousands of people are thanked for contributing funds that went towards the making of the film. It’s clear that Jeon Tae-Il is a hero and this is a part of Korea’s history that people want to acknowledge and remember . As an outsider, however, I found the movie watchable and interesting but it really didn’t blow me away.