Artists’ years of support by mother and sister the basis for film on labor’s agony

Posted on : 2015-05-11 16:27 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Im Heung-soon the first South Korean artist to win the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale, for documentary “Factory Complex”
 maker of the documentary “Factory Complex” about alienated female workers in Asia
maker of the documentary “Factory Complex” about alienated female workers in Asia

His mother spent 40 years working as an assistant at a sewing factory, but she did not try to force him to change his dream of becoming a poor artist. Long after his mother told him to “life is yours to live as you want,” the words continued to echo in his brain. His mother quietly watched and supported him as he endured the challenges of life as an artist, moving from painting to video and community art and finally to indie documentaries.

The documentary artist who grew up immersed in his mother’s life has touched the world. On May 9, Im Heung-soon, 46, became the first South Korean artist to receive the Silver Lion prize in the international exhibition at the prestigious Venice Biennale for his feature-length documentary “Factory Complex,” which depicts the lives of Asian working women.

“This film was completely inspired by my mother, who worked as a factory assistant for 40 years, and by my younger sister, who worked at department stores and clothing outlets until she was over 40 years old to support me,” Im said.

“Factory Complex,” a 95-minute documentary that was two years in the making, contains images of labor action and interviews with twenty Asian female workers that develop his family’s own experience with the agony of labor.

 holds up his Silver Lion trophy at the Venice Biennale
holds up his Silver Lion trophy at the Venice Biennale

The film begins with a scene of police and soldiers violently suppressing workers at a factory in Cambodia. It quietly describes the alienated lives of women who work at clothing factories, retail outlets, and call centers in South Korea and Southeast Asia, as well as those women’s dreams and frustration.

There is no narration, but images of workers whose eyes get teary as they speak, lyrical shots of the sky between factory buildings, spectacular footage of Southeast Asians riding their scooters to work, and stills of historical events are blended together to amplify viewers’ emotional response to the facts.

“I started this project to express my gratitude to my mother and younger sister for helping me. I also wanted to say that art is always a part of work and life. I’d like to think that the story and the images are plain but powerful. Some parts of the life and testimony of the female workers were moving and emotional, which seems to have had an impact on the judges.”

One of the major reasons the documentary “Factory Complex” won a prize in the Venice Biennale competition was its unique cinematic aesthetic, which approached labor issues in an age of globalization and polarization with honesty, but without rancor.

 May 9. (provided by Arts Council Korea)
May 9. (provided by Arts Council Korea)

After graduating with an art degree from Kyungwon University (which later merged with Gachon University), Im has dedicated himself to producing movies that tackle social issues.

In the early 2000, Im created a project art group called Mix Rice that made videos telling the stories of migrant workers from various angles. Since then, he has continued to explore the possibilities of social art, working on installation exhibitions and video production classes with participants at Seoul Art Space Geumcheon and other locations.

Im attracted attention with the 2013 release of “Jeju Prayer,” his first full-length documentary, which wove together the stories of the 1948 Jeju Uprising and the controversy over a planned naval base at Gangjeong Village. At the beginning of this year, he became the first South Korean artist to be invited to the international exhibition at the Venice Biennale in six years.

Currently, a video by Im called “Reincarnation,” which captures the pain of the mothers of victims in the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, is being shown at an art exhibition at Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and at MoMA PS1 in New York. Im is getting ready to turn the video into a full-length documentary. He is also preparing to release a sequel to “Jeju Prayer” that focuses on the history of Jeju Island.

“As I work, I bear in mind the questions of how I can explain labor to the public, how labor is changing right now, and how those changes will affect human existence,” Im said.

By Noh Hyung-seok, staff reporter in Venice


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