Published Apr 15, 2016Now in its 29th year, Toronto's Images Festival boasts one of the most impressive lineups of experimental film and media in the world. Showcasing art that pushes the boundaries of language, communication and technology, the festival has crafted an idiosyncratic and playful identity that sets it apart from some of Canada's other experimental film festivals, including the occasionally more austere Wavelengths program at TIFF.
Images Festival is decidedly its own thing, blending the political and the personal in new ways that show the potential future of cinema. The festival sprawls across the city, from interactive new media pieces in galleries, to performance art that incorporates video memories, to late-night projections on building walls, breaking down boundaries that challenge how we understand film as a whole.
The festival's On Screen program opening film, Factory Complex by South Korean director IM Heung-soon, is a perfect example of the festival's programming. A sprawling work that spans generations, the documentary examines sites of resistance in South Korea at a time of rapid economic growth, and the way working class women fight against oppression and unsafe labour conditions.
Factory Complex is quietly bold in the way it allows these women to simply tell their stories. The documentary comes from a personal place, stopping for moments of contemplation in a way other films seem afraid to allow. IM makes stunning use of silence and editing, depicting a mosaic of struggle throughout history that isn't rooted in one particular story, relying on theme and the art of capturing elusive personal memory to make this documentary sing.
Appropriately, the film begins with a song of labour and strife. After a short, impressionistic montage of life in nature among the crumbling ruins of Cambodia (a narrative turn we will come to understand with devastating effect by the end of Factory Complex), we hear a voice: "What good would crying do? I should get a manual labour job. What will we do about my poor sister? She is on the graveyard shift list."
From here, IM establishes the emotional themes of capitalism's effect on the self, on the family unit and on society with a strong dialectical effect. The film first explores how female factory workers came together in the 1960s to demand worker's rights and fair wages, and faced terrible consequences for it. IM is careful to show the effects of time in these first-person accounts, departing from traditional modes of documentary interview into the realm of poetics and hyperrealism, as memories begin to blend together.
The film then traces histories of conflict from factories, to shop workers, to the modern day economy of online shopping, mapping out subtle strands of social hardship in modern South Korea. From the rigid class system to blatant and cruel sexism, IM allows the stories of these conflicts to reveal themselves organically through the testimonies of these women, spanning spatial and temporal boundaries to draw connections that never feel forced or unearned. Factory Complex suggests that, despite the benefits of rapid economic expansion, these brutal patterns are doomed to repeat themselves, culminating with a final look at modern day Cambodia, and the way that labour issues in that country chillingly resemble South Korea's factory boom in the 1960s.
IM's film resists easy description, it gracefully moving from one account to the next, stopping for moments of beauty in nature, suggesting possibilities of recovery. By mapping out socio-political imperatives for economic success, questioning our own complicity in the events and offering up a plurality of perspectives, Factory Complex comes across not as an interrogative film, but one that feels devastatingly human and true. This is a remarkable film, and a fantastic start to Images' On Screen program.