Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha (松千代一代記, Ken Nishikawa, 2018)

Matsuchiyo PosterThe figure of the “geisha” looms large in Japanese cinema, but all too often international perceptions of what a geisha is or should be are rooted in old fashioned orientalist ideas of exotic Eastern women somehow both refined and alluring. Most assume geisha is synonymous with high class prostitute and that the life of a geisha is not much different from any other sex worker save for the trappings of elegance which are in fact its USP. These assumptions are, however, not entirely accurate.

In order to tell the story of the modern day geisha, Ken Nishikawa steps in front of the camera to tell that of his own mother which is also in many ways, the story of 20th century Japan. Later known as Matsuchiyo, Nishikawa’s mother spent the pre-war years in Manchuria returning to a land in ruins shortly after the wartime defeat. In order to support her ailing mother, she became a geisha which is, as we will discover, an extraordinarily skilled and arcane profession entailing the mastery of a number of traditional arts from dance to shamisen.

As Matsuchiyo later puts it, it’s difficult for a foolish girl to become a geisha, but for an intelligent one it may be impossible. A flippant remark to be sure, but it hints at the true purpose of a geisha’s training which amounts to a gentle erasure of individual personality in order to play the role of the perfect woman from the point of view of each particular client. Somewhere between bartender and therapist, a geisha must listen patiently to the complaints of each of her companions as they pour out their souls over sake, laying bare the fears and worries with which they could never burden a wife (assuming they might want to). Nodding sympathetically, she must remain cheerful and supportive, never voicing her true feelings but only those the client has paid to hear. The business of a geisha isn’t selling sex but fantasy, an image of unconditional love which is entirely conditional on payment of the bill.

As far as bills go, being a geisha is an expensive business and so each must be careful to hook a patron who will support her ongoing career – paying for training, equipment, elaborate outfits and hairdressing, in return for preferential treatment and loyalty. Matsuchiyo, as young woman, fell in love with a handsome young man but he was poor and her family still had debts. Though they urged her to do what she thought best, Matsuchiyo made a sacrifice and gave up on love to continue her geisha training and provide for her family. She became the mistress of a wealthy elderly man and later the “shadow wife” of a younger one from a wealthy family who fathered her three children but had two more with a legal wife. On his death she received nothing and the children were not even allowed to go to their father’s funeral, such was the taboo nature of their existence from the point of view of their father’s family.

The children were also instructed not to tell people that their mother was a geisha, leaving them with a lingering feeling of shame regarding her profession even if Matsuchiyo herself has absolutely none. Becoming a geisha is hard, it takes skill and application not to mention an investment in time. These days there are few women who want to be one, possibly because of its associations with the sex trade, but also simply because times have changed. Before the war when poverty was at its height, it was “normal” to sell a daughter to a geisha house so she might feed her family. Thankfully, this was no longer (officially at least) possible in the post-war world, but when Matsuchiyo became a geisha there were many young women like her who did so to escape the kind of extreme poverty which is happily absent in the modern Japan. The geisha houses enjoyed a post-war boom in the Showa era but have been in rapid decline ever since, becoming perhaps a rarefied cultural icon while the regular foot traffic trots off to the decidedly more casual world of hostess bars.

Nishikawa narrates much of his mother’s story in English with occasional on screen graphics to aid in explanation before allowing her to tell some of it herself in subtitled Japanese. Though others might have lamented Matsuchiyo’s “hard life” filled with loss and heartbreak, she herself regrets nothing and continues to dedicate herself to the geisha craft as the president of Atami’s geisha guild, fostering the latest generation of younger women keen to carry on the geisha legacy in an ever modernising world. A fascinating insight into the tightly controlled dichotomies of a geisha’s life, Nishikawa’s personal documentary is also voyage through the changing society of post-war Japan through the eyes of those trained to observe and most particularly an old woman who survived it all with a smile.


Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha (松千代一代記, Matsuchiyo Ichidaiki) was screened as part of the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English)

Sennan Asbestos Disaster (ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村, Kazuo Hara, 2017)

Sennan Asbestos Disaster posterIn these troubled times, many may find themselves wondering what the purpose of government really is. Is the primary duty of the state to look after its citizens or to maintain “order” and what exactly is the limit of the state’s responsibility towards those most in need of its care? Director Kazuo Hara had made a career of examining the lives of those who dared to defy the system, but his latest film Sennan Asbestos Disaster (ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村, Nipponkoku vs Sennan Ishiwata Mura) focusses not on an individual but on a group of ordinary people attempting to stand up to governmental bureaucracy after having been betrayed by successive administrations who put economic prosperity ahead of citizens’ welfare.

Asbestos was hailed as something of a wonder for its highly useful properties including sound insulation, fire proofing, strength and durability. Increasing in use throughout the industrial revolution, the harmful affects of asbestos were first discovered in the early 20th century but its use across most of the world was not banned until the turn of the millennium following long campaigns by those whose health had been adversely affected by breathing in its fibres leading to long term respiratory issues and even a risk of cancer.

In Sennan, in the South West of Japan, asbestos production was the dominant economy stretching back into the Meiji era. Concerns had been raised about the possible harmful effects of asbestos before the war and then again afterwards, but successive governments chose to do nothing while workers remained unaware of the risks even while noticing that many of their friends and family members were dying young often of respiratory conditions. Most only became aware that asbestos was dangerous in 2005 following a national scandal known as the “Kubota Shock” in which a well respected manufacturer of machinery was forced to admit that as much as 10% of its workforce had died of asbestos-related conditions.

Hara follows a collective of Sennan residents who have come together to file a class action law suit against the government for failing to ensure safety standards in asbestos production. Led by Kazuyoshi Yuoka whose grandfather owned an asbestos factory before the war, the group members are mainly older men and women who worked in the factories during the economically straitened days of the immediate post-war period. Though many point to the otherwise progressive nature of the factories which were desperate to attract workers and keen to foster a community spirit as well as offering other benefits including access to education, it is true that many of the employees were among those already facing other kinds of oppression aside from the economic – the uneducated rural poor, women, and a large number of minorities including zainichi Koreans. This information is important because it exposes the truth that the state decided these people were expendable and could be sacrificed in the name of the economic prosperity that was deemed necessary in order to rebuild the nation after its crushing wartime defeat.

Unlike the protagonists of Hara’s previous films, the Sennan campaigners are ordinary people – those assumed to have very little social power pressuring their government to take responsibility for having wilfully abandoned them. Unsurprisingly, the government is not very keen to do so. The legal case drags on eight years during which many of the sufferers die while their children or spouses continue the quest for justice. The case itself is wider than it first seems, extending not just to factory workers but to those exposed by general proximity such as famers owning land near asbestos plants and in one poignant case a woman whose parents took her to the factory while they worked when she was a child.

Forming a tightly knit community, the campaigners present a united front but come up against the wall of bureaucracy. As time wears on it’s difficult not to feel a small amount of sympathy for the junior civil servants the government trots out to deal with angry protestors, forced to repeat the same tired phrases without explanation while the group insist on seeing someone with a bit more clout, but even when the case is finally proved, progress is slow and the ritual apology as hollow as it always is. Yet even if some are angered by the perfunctory nature of professional atonement, others actively embrace it and appear grateful even for this small shred of attention from the authority. It’s here that Hara wavers in his sympathy, admiring the kindhearted solidarity of the protestors but lamenting their tendency towards feudal deference when they should be raging against a society which is often content to exploit and discard them, remaining accidentally complicit in enabling a gradual decline of democratic freedoms.

Nevertheless, Sennan Asbestos Disaster is the chronicle of a (partially) successful campaign in which a group of concerned citizens working within the law eventually force the government to concede an error, even if that concession may turn out to have no wider application. The victory, however, can’t bring back lost time nor ease past suffering and only serves to draw a line under one chapter of a struggle which is sadly far from over.


Sennan Asbestos Disaster was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍, Kazuo Hara, 1987)

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On PosterThe relationship between a director and a subject can often be a complex one. Who is really leading who and towards what end is a difficult enough question at the best of times, but when your subject is an unhinged crackpot with a definite agenda, a natural love of the camera, and an unpredictable violent streak, it’s an inescapable conundrum. Kenzo Okuzaki, a Pacific War veteran with a deeply seated grudge against the emperor for his refusal to acknowledge his war guilt, first came to the attention of director Shohei Imamura but a second stretch in prison for firing pachinko balls at the object of his wrath put paid to his directorial hopes. 10 years later Imamura passes his subject on to Kazuo Hara who finds himself increasingly at the mercy of his mercurial campaign for truth and reconciliation.

The main thrust of Okuzaki’s current activities lies in uncovering the facts behind the deaths of two enlisted men who were executed in New Guinea three weeks after the war was over. Okuzaki believes the men were murdered and lies the blame at the feet firstly of the officers on the ground and ultimately at those of the emperor who created the circumstances in which all of this horror was allowed to bloom. To assist him in his investigations, Okuzaki ropes in the families of the victims – one a Shinto priestess who is convinced she sees her brother in her dreams and on her altar, and the other a conflicted brother who just wants to know the truth. The truth, however, may be hard to hear, as one of the men Okuzaki corners tries to tell them. Like most of the others questioned about the events of almost forty years before, he advises the family that it’s better not to know while emphasising that their relatives died through no fault of their own.

What is probably obvious to Okuzaki but not to the relatively less cynical family members is that an issue is being skirted. The soldier makes out that he doesn’t want to go into the deaths because the men were executed for desertion – something which is absurd in itself when the war was already over, and that he did not want the family to experience the shame and social stigma of being related to “cowards” who failed in their “duty”. Such notions are already out of date by the late ‘80s, but evidently still weigh heavily on the minds of veterans. Wanting to spare others the pain and shame of discovering the truth about what happened in New Guinea is a frequent excuse offered by those questioned, but perhaps a way of deflecting their own reluctance to speak of such deeply traumatic, extremely difficult events.

Getting them to open up is not Okuzaki’s first thought. Okuzaki himself is a strange man with a disturbing aura and a tendency to self-aggrandisement. When we first meet him he’s acting as a go-between at a wedding of a man he met through his “activism” which is to say a fellow combatant in Okuzaki’s campaign against “The Establishment”. A wedding speech might not be the most appropriate moment to embark on a personal history that involves going to prison for murdering someone you “did not want” to murder as well as a litany of anti-establishment acts including the pachinko ball incident and distributing “pornographic” pictures of the emperor to shoppers at a Tokyo department store. Nevertheless, Okuzaki is extremely proud of these “achievements” which exemplify how he alone has continued to fight the good fight in the post-war world. He sees his original conviction as karma not for his actions in the Pacific but the wastefulness of his life afterwards. He now believes he was saved from New Guinea in order to educate the young about the horrors of war and ensure none of this ever happens again.

Problematically, his main weapon in this fight is violence. Okuzaki’s manner is one of extreme politeness, bordering on obsequiousness, but he is also direct and aggressive, becoming violent when his subjects decline to answer his questions. The relatives are there to shame the officers into speaking the truth through being directly confronted by the human costs of their actions, but Okuzaki’s personal bluster hasn’t thought through the various ways in which his tactics might make it more difficult for them to speak. After all, Okuzaki is a veteran of New Guinea himself, if these men could feel comfortable talking to anyone about their experiences, you’d think they could turn to someone like Okuzaki if only he were not so frightening a presence. Uncomfortably enough, the violence does seem to work and Okuzaki gets his answers through intimidation which leaves his quarry broken and compliant. Despite claiming to work for world peace, Okuzaki believes that his violence is justified by the worthiness of his aims, which you have to admit is an oddly familiar mantra.

His subject’s propensity for violence places Hara in a difficult position, as do his frequent attempts at engineering the situation including roping in his wife and a couple of male friends to pose as relatives of the deceased when the original couple tire of Okuzaki’s exploitative antics. Okuzaki quite obviously has a very clear aim for what he perhaps sees as a propaganda exercise for his ongoing cause which might stand in deep contrast to that of his director who is, after all, a bystander reconstructing narrative after the fact. Okuzaki emerges as a symbol of a nation’s repressed trauma, skittering between officious politeness and belligerent violence while offering a bizarre, quasi-religious philosophy about god’s plan for us all. Hara remains caught between conflicting impulses, unwittingly complicit in Okuzaki’s personal war against war while trying to maintain control in the face of his constant manipulations. As a portrait of a madman The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On excels, painting Okuzaki as a product of his own mad times while refusing to back away from the bitter truths his madness is so keen to expose.


The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍, Yuki Yukite, Shingun) was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.

Short clip from the film (English subtitles)

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (極私的エロス 恋歌1974, Kazuo Hara, 1974)

Extreme private eros 1974If you’re going to use your camera to interrogate the world, perhaps it’s only fair to let the world interrogate you by means of your own camera. Kazuo Hara’s second documentary is about as personal as its possible to get – a detached, rational examination of the interplay between the director and his subject who happens to be his former lover and the mother of his child. A thinly veiled excuse to maintain contact with a woman who had abandoned him and taken his child with her, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (極私的エロス 恋歌1974, Gokushiteki Eros: Renka 1974) is both a tiny snapshot of a nation in flux, and a timeless exploration of the end of love.

Hara and his former lover Miyuki Takeda had lived together for three years and even had a child when she abruptly announced that she no longer wanted to live under the authority of a man or as a member of a “traditional” family and intended to leave in order to live a life of complete independence. Although the relationship was officially over, Miyuki maintained contact with Hara and visited him more or less weekly so it was an additional shock when she suddenly announced she was moving to Okinawa. However, Miyuki made a strange request of her former lover – that he film her attempt to give birth without assistance. Hoping to remain close to her or perhaps to attempt to understand better the reasoning behind her erratic behaviour, Hara agrees.

In Okinawa, Miyuki has moved in with another woman, Sugako, but the relationship between them appears strained and ill defined. Hara’s arrival, he eventually realises, is yet another disruptive influence in this already fraught environment but it’s unclear whether his camera is a deliberate or accidental witness to a series of extremely difficult, not to mention private, conversations taking place in front of a third party in which Miyuki berates her silent roommate for rejecting her desire for a full and exclusive relationship in favour of continuing to sleep with her friend Tommy.

When the relationship with Sugako breaks down, Miyuki takes up with a black GI, Paul, who later becomes the father of the child she intends to birth alone. Though interviewing Miyuki alongside Paul (who speaks no Japanese) is a mild and dispassionate affair, interviewing Miyuki alone about her new lover and the basis of their relationship sends Hara into a spiral of jealousy and despair in which he eventually cedes control of his camera to an assistant and appears on screen breaking down in tears. Wondering if Miyuki is as accidentally jealous of him as he is of Miyuki, Hara muddies the waters by inviting his own new lover, Sachiko – who is also pregnant with his child, to assist him in the making of the documentary. Hara gets his wish. Miyuki is indeed jealous, angrily barking at Sachiko while running down her former lover in every conceivable way, and yet the two women eventually end up bonding, once again excluding Hara from his own attempt at narrative.

The perspective is indeed Hara’s – his weary voiceover and occasionally passive aggressive, exasperated intertitles making plain his own confusion and continued searching for the central question of what exactly he’s trying to achieve, but Miyuki wrestles with him for overall control and to assert her right of ownership over her own story (or at least the presentation of it). Miyuki’s quest seems to be one of total independence – she rejects the world of the patriarchal family, later rejecting love entirely and resolving to live without a man or woman, but remains firmly within its standard ideological parameters in recasting herself as the embodiment of selfless motherhood. She rejects the ideas of traditional Japanese femininity, insisting that her children are raised to be aggressive rather than meek or gentle or kind and going so far as to reject these supposedly feminised qualities as she sees them in her own son as reflections of those same qualities she eventually found unappealing in Hara. She becomes obsessed with the idea of mixed-race children, perhaps as an extension of her desire for a non-Japanese idea of individualism, but later tells her new born daughter that Japan is good and America bad, and pens a damning letter of advice to the women of Okinawa warning them off deceitful GIs.

Miyuki is a woman with scant respect for boundaries and so Hara is granted near unrestricted access to the entirety of her existence as she pursues her various desires and contradictory convictions. Hara’s camera is both unobtrusive and powerfully present, privy to extremely private thoughts and conversations and only occasionally inserting itself into the narrative but unafraid to embrace taboos while perhaps also conflicted in its own defiant pursuit of emotional honesty at all costs. In attempting to capture his subject Hara illuminates both himself and his society, exposing painful truths and unwelcome prejudices but perhaps allowing them to fester unresolved in a future which is both open yet also uncertain.


Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Soseongri (소성리, Park Bae-il, 2017)

Soseongri posterElderly people are often assumed to be of a conservative disposition, steadfastly clinging to the values of a world rapidly slipping away, but many have also experienced things they sincerely hope no further generations will be forced to experience. The grannies of Soseongri lived through the Korean War and so they remember just how terrible life in wartime can be. Even so, despite living close to the North Korean border, they’d put those days of fear and anxiety long behind them – that is until it was announced that the peaceful village of Soseongri would be the site for a bank of US military THAAD missile systems intended to act as a deterrent/defensive measure against aggression from the North.

Director Park Bae-il opens with lengthy shot of an old woman’s hands carefully placing seedlings into the earth. The first part of the film immerses us in village life, and in the lives of the old ladies who make up the bulk of the population now that most of the youngsters have moved into the cities. In fact, other than the police officers and right wingers who turn up later, there are only two men ever captured on screen – one very elderly, and the other a cheerful toddler ironically dressed in a T-shirt which reads “let’s go red”. Most of the women arrived in Soseongri to marry and their lives have been defined by farming and family. One particularly feisty old woman proudly tells us how she and her friends have managed to strike a small blow against their restrictive society in reclaiming their own names. When they came to Soseongri, they came as “the new bride” or “so-and-so’s wife”, later becoming “so-and-so’s mother” but now that they’re old they’ve all started to call each other by their given names and insisted everyone else, even the local post service, do the same. Even so, the same woman laments that she feels she was not a good wife to her husband because of her defiant attitude and worries that she made her family unhappy in being unwilling to just go along with the way of things.

Meanwhile, life on the border holds its own share of anxieties. The memories of the war are still vivid for these older women who remember the threat and violence, the horrifying deaths of friends and the constant ideological conflicts. Anti-communist sentiments are still prevalent among the older generation – one woman describes certain villagers as having been “contaminated” by communist ideas, but admits that when the communists came to Soseongri they came in peace. Everyone got a free cow, the villagers ate meat, and the communist cadre treated them well while building infrastructure and protecting village life. When the communists were forced back North, however, it was the South Korean army which marched “collaborators” off to the cliffs never to seen again.

Nevertheless, one of the things that bothers the women the most in their protests is being accused of being “communists” by the right wing counter protestors. In a shocking display of extreme political rhetoric, the arrival of the THAAD missile system is greeted by loud patriotic songs from the authoritarian era which are explicit in their violence, wishing for the bloody deaths of all communists. The defenders of THAAD claim that it will maintain peace through deterrence, but the old ladies fear it will only antagonise an old enemy and prolong the already protracted peace process. They don’t want “peace” through mutually assured destruction, they want an end to the conflict once and for all. In truth they don’t want the THAAD anywhere, but they particularly don’t want it in their village which will after all become a major target, ensuring they will be the first to feel the fire if the missiles fly.

As it stands the old women are already worried about the planes flying constantly overhead, bringing back bad memories of a past they hoped was already far behind them. Now they find themselves facing violence once again as the police act to protect the right wing protest groups and think nothing of using their superior strength against little old ladies who are just trying to make their voices heard. THAAD or not, the peace in this tiny village has already been ruptured and serious questions raised about the rights of local people vs the national government, a difference in attitudes between young and old when it comes to the North, and possible government hypocrisy in the face of rising tensions coupled with geopolitical concerns. Park, immersing himself in village life, allows the ladies to speak for themselves as they offer both their histories and their wisdom, but most of all their fortitude as they refuse to stop fighting for a peaceful existence.


Screened as part of London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Interview with director Park Bae-il from the 2017 Busan Film Festival

Repatriation (송환, Kim Dong-won, 2004)

Repatriation posterIt is sometimes said that citizens of a divided nation suffer more from the manipulation of the division than from the division itself. Kim Dong-won’s landmark 2004 documentary Repatriation (송환, Songhwan) tackles this issue from the side in examining the lives of “unconverted” political prisoners – spies from the North who endured years of torture yet never abandoned their core ideology. Kim tells their stories with warmth and empathy, but cannot avoid the various ways they have been used and misused as proxies in a long dormant war, sometimes willingly but sometimes not. Personal friendships aside, Kim’s view of the ex-prisoners is coloured by the political attitudes of his times in which the left, deeply wounded following the subversion of the hard won fight for democracy, longs to see the right’s claims of the North as mere propaganda and perhaps idealises the positive qualities of life North of the border only to have their illusions shattered and their hopes once again dashed

Back in 1992, a priest asked director Kim Dong-won for the use of his car. He was bringing a pair of “unconverted” long term prisoners to the village and needed help. Despite his reservations Kim agreed and against the odds, Choi and Kim were warmly welcomed into the small community who came together to look after the two old men regardless of their controversial beliefs and pasts as spies sent down from the North more than 30 years previously.

“Unconverted” is, strictly speaking, the preferred language of the North. The South refers to the same prisoners as “converts-to-be”, which is to say that the normal practice for captured spies is a period of lengthy torture designed to force the captives to “convert” from North Korean communism to regularised South Korean anti-communism. The language in itself is telling, and Kim frames his tale as one of faith and martyrdom with the Unconverted painted as true believers who never wavered even in the face of extreme suffering and persecution. Indeed, the suffering itself only strengthened their resolve and legitimised their struggle – if they are prepared to go this far to obliterate your ideas, then your ideas must after all have power.

This idea of an almost religious belief in the righteousness of North Korean “socialism” seems to have caught Kim’s attention, but he is not blind to the darker sides of their continued indoctrination. Kim and Choi have frequent get togethers with others in the same position, singing North Korean folksongs and communist anthems while they extol the virtues of a land they’ve not set foot in since they were young men, pining for a homeland that might not exist anymore. The Unconverted want to go home, but those of a more practical mindset might wonder what would happen to them if they could – will they be welcomed with open arms as they seem to think, or be treated with suspicion as returnees who’ve lived freely in the South which has, after all, released them willingly?

Meanwhile, belief in the “goodness” of the North begins to crumble with increasing improvement in relations which gradually lays bare the truth of the Communist state, suffering heavily thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union and ongoing economic reforms in China. Pervasive governmental corruption had encouraged many to feel that any and all information regarding the evils of North Korea must be lies created to spread fear as part of a vast propaganda machine and so when much of it turned out to be the truth it was a double blow to an already wounded left whose revolution had been betrayed when a newly democratic Korea went ahead and elected the dictator’s chosen successor. The Unconverted become a political pinball – if the South lets them go home some will praise their compassion, but many more will read it as a defeat while the North may well make full capital out of their returned heroes’ unbreakable resolve while also using them to attack the “cruel” South for treating them so badly and refusing to allow those still imprisoned to return.

Yet Kim’s concerns are human before they’re ideological – these are men who want to go home and someone is telling them that they can’t. The Uncoverted are mere pawns in an ongoing ideological game being played by two sides of a never-ending civil war. The division itself remains weaponised by both sides, each seeking to use it to demonise the other and no matter your personal ideology the inhumanity of making political capital of ordinary people ought to be disturbing. What Kim proves, however, is that a kind of “reunification” is possible – that friendships can be formed across ideological lines and that a peaceful coexistence can be won over common ground so long as there is the will to find it.


Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.

A Slice Room (사람이 산다, Song Yun-hyeok, 2016)

slice room still 1It’s easy to view a city like Seoul as a shining example of economic prosperity in which even ordinary people enjoy a high standard of living and perhaps no longer need to worry about extreme poverty or hunger. Of course, this is not the case and despite the aspirational image the city likes to project for itself, a long and complex history of political instability, authoritarian government, and the legacy of the 1997 Asian financial crisis have ensured the survival of an oppressed underclass unable to escape the roots of their poverty due to entrenched social issues which will not allow them to free themselves from the Slice Room existence.

Director Song Yun-hyeok first learned of the “jjok bang” or “Slice Room” phenomenon while working with the homeless and himself lived in one of the tiny tenement rooms for a year in order to make the documentary. He follows three groups of impoverished people who have each found themselves trapped in the slums for different reasons. 27-year-old Il-so was born in the jjok bang and has lived in the community all his life. He lives with his girlfriend, Sun-hee, who uses a wheelchair and finds it difficult to get around the makeshift world of the jjok bang without him. Meanwhile, 60-something Nam-sung lost his job after the Asian financial crisis and has been drifting aimlessly ever since as has Chun-hyun whose mental health issues prevent him from gaining secure employment.

Bad luck can happen to anybody, but the forces which conspire to keep someone in the jjok bang are no accident only a result of deliberate governmental failures. The reason many are unable to get off benefits and return to mainstream society is down to a law which mandates familial support – i.e. if a son gets a job his father loses his benefits even if the prospective job is not enough to support them both or if there are other dependents involved. Thus Nam-sung, by most standards an old man, finds himself in the humiliating position of having to reconnect with his estranged parents in order to get them to sign a consent form so that he can have access to government subsidy and take up a job his social worker has found for him. The family, whom he has not seen for 40 years, are also aware of the support legislation and are worried they will at some point be required to support Nam-sung and so they disown him and refuse to sign. Nam-sung is back at square one with no other options because of the say so of his father even though he is old enough to be a grandfather himself.

Meanwhile, Il-so and Sun-hee want to get married and start a family, but once they become a couple they will also receive a substantial benefits cut and seeing as they are also unable to work because of health issues and the support law, they have no real possibility of being able to support themselves without government help. Nevertheless they decide to try and fulfil their dream of building a family only to face a further dilemma when Sun-hee becomes pregnant.

Medical costs are another constant worry. Il-so, who has spent his entire life in the jjok bang, has long standing health issues from high blood pressure and diabetes to recurrent TB. Disease is rife in the jjok bang and mysterious deaths not uncommon, but the secondary problems are spiritual malaise and creeping depression as the hopelessness of the jjok bang world begins to sap the strength of those who live there, convincing them there is no way out of this world of crushing of poverty. For those like Chun-hyun the situation is even more precarious as they attempt to manage their conditions while living in the impossible jjok bang society, forced into exploitative, low paid and illegal labour simply to get by all while worrying about being caught out, losing their benefits and their homes.

Nam-sung, having found temporary relief outside of the city, is forced to return to the jjok bang but has resigned himself to wanting nothing more than to be allowed to live there until he dies. The jjok bang, however, has been scheduled for demolition which might be a good thing in many ways save that no provision has been made for where these people are supposed to go – rents everywhere else are simply too high and many will have no other option than being forced back onto the streets. With no address they’ll have no access to welfare or possibility of finding work and so the whole vicious cycle starts over again. Make no mistake, these problems are not exclusive to Korea but are the result of an uncaring and authoritarian government which continues to abnegate its responsibilities towards its most vulnerable citizens while social stigma and a belief that the poor have only themselves to blame continues to perpetuate a myth of othering which thinks the problem will eventually solve itself in the cruellest of ways. Director Song Yun-hyeok explores the lives of the jjok bang residents with empathy and understanding, demonstrating the extent to which they are rendered powerless by a needlessly arcane social welfare system in the hope that something might finally change.


Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.