The second collaboration between Lee Chang-dong as a scriptwriter and Park Kwang-soo as director was a very political film, which focused on Jeon Tae-il, a worker and workers' rights activist who committed suicide by burning himself to death at the age of 22, in protest of the poor working conditions in South Korean factories.
The story revolves around his life and in a secondary axis, five years after his death, in 1975, when law school graduate Kim decides to write a book about Tae-il, in the midst of the worst period of President Park's regime, when political activism was punishable by death. In the present timeframe, Kim, who is also an activist, hides in a room rented by his girlfriend, while he spends most of his days visiting the places Tae-il have been, with the film changing arcs each time, to present the experiences of the deceased in the particular location. Through these flashbacks, Park depicts the awful working conditions in the factories in Seoul, where tuberculosis due to poor or non-existent ventilation, and the enforced injections of amphetamines to keep sleep-deprived workers awake for days in a row in order to work overtime without proper compensation, was the rule.
Tae-il, working as a tailor in one of these sweatshops is "enlightened" after reading a book about labor law and becomes an activist. After a number of efforts to alarm the authorities of the situation in the factories, he turns to the press, with the publication of his stories becoming one of the few successes he experienced until his suicide. In 1975, Kim also has to deal with the authorities, particularly through his girlfriend, who finds herself a victim to violence due to her activist actions.
Jeon Tae-il directs a very dramatic film, which combines fiction (Kim's arc) with the docudrama (Tae-il's arc) splendidly, with each axis actually strengthening the other. Tae-il's is definitely the one with the most impact, with the black and white cinematography by You Young-gil highlighting both the harsh conditions in the factories and the fact that this arc is taking place in the past. Lee Chang-dong's script on the second axis presents the story with thoroughness and distinct sympathy towards his subject, while Park's direction, along with Kim Yang-il's editing, make the most of the presentation of both axes.
All of the film's aesthetics find their apogee in the self-immolation scene, a truly shocking sequence that intensifies the film's impact even more.
Evidently, the movie takes the side of the activists, but the script does not fail to portray all aspects, even involving some ill practices of the far left, of which Lee Chang-dong had some experience, due to his family's background.
Moon Sung-keun gives a measured performance, highlighting his character's struggles as he deals with an issue that could even have him killed. The one who steals the show though, is Hong Kyung-in as Tae-il who presents his character's metamorphosis from a timid "victim" to a resolved activist and again to a victim of his own despair, in outstanding fashion.
"A Single Spark" is a great film that manages to present a combination of artistry and meaningfulness through a very important episode in the history of the Korean labor movement, in New Wave style.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[Guest Film Review] "A Single Spark""
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