A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Park Kwang-su, 1995)

In the present day, South Korea has become a prosperous society and leading world economy, but the miracle of its modernisation came at a heavy price. Socially committed filmmaker Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark (아름다운 청년 전태일, Areumdaun cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il) takes a trip back to the “truly dark days” of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship to expose the exploitation on which the modern society was, and in fact still is, founded, enabled largely by the wilful misuse of a fear of “communism” as manifested in the problematic presence of threat from “the North”.

Park filters his true life tale through the figure of a fictionalised author and activist, Kim (Moon Sung-Keun), who finds himself on the run from the authorities in 1975. Hiding out in a small town in a backroom rented by his pregnant factory worker girlfriend Jung-soon (Kim Sunjae), Kim is working on a biography of a labour rights activist, Jeon Tae-il, who self-immolated in order to protest the failure to properly enforce existing workers’ rights five years’ earlier in 1970.

Switching to crisp black and white, Park paints a bleak picture of working class life in the late 1960s as the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime imposed extreme export goals designed to boost the local economy. We first meet Jeon (Hong Kyeong-in), who was only 22 at the time of his death, selling umbrellas on the street before he is “lucky” enough to get a job in a tailoring factory. Committing himself to working hard and getting on, he is quickly disillusioned with conditions at the plant which has little light or ventilation and often forces its employees to work through the night without adequate breaks for food. When the young woman next to him begins vomiting blood and is sent home but subsequently fired, Jeon becomes radicalised. Told that there are no laws which protect workers, he is surprised to discover that there are but their existence has been wilfully kept from him. The law is written in a language which is almost impossible for him to understand, in highly formal text using Chinese characters which most ordinary Koreans, never mind those like Jeon denied a proper education, struggle to read.

Jeon begins agitating. He takes a copy of the statutes and a series of violations at the factory to those in charge, but no one is interested. Even when he convinces some of the other workers to come with him, the boss is eventually forced to make a token concession of listening to them but ultimately rolls his eyes and says it’s all very well but not good for business. Jeon isn’t asking for anything radical (save the later addition of provision for menstrual leave), only for better ventilation and for the existing laws to be obeyed.

Meanwhile, Kim meditates on his legacy in the dark days of 1975 where anti-communist sentiment runs high in the wake of the end of the Vietnam War. “Anti-communism” and the demonisation of the North were a central part of Park Chung-hee’s right-wing, nationalist military dictatorship and any attempts to form things like unions or left-leaning political associations were quickly decried as “communist”. Kim’s girlfriend Jung-soon is currently involved in trying to set up a union at her factory to combat many of the same kinds of issues that Jeon was fighting five years’ earlier, but she too is under a lot of pressure. Afraid of the authorities and of losing their jobs, many workers refuse to join and even after she reaches her quota the request for recognition is denied. She and the other activists are harassed by factory management beginning with a “friendly” meeting outside her home in which they try to bribe her with money and expensive fruits, and ending with a raid on the building in which some of the workers are holding a protest during which a woman falls ill and the others are badly beaten when they try to get her to a hospital.

Jeon and the others are lectured by management that they should try to feel more “patriotic” and be willing to suffer in order to raise the economy, bribed with false promises that they’ll all be driving luxury cars in 10 years’ time. Meanwhile, a woman coming to collect money from Jeon’s mother angrily exclaims that debtors should take rat poison and die (which seems counterproductive when they owe you money), and the managers dismiss workers’ concerns with the rationale that they obviously “aren’t hungry enough” to put up with starvation wages and poor working conditions. From the vantage point of 1975, Kim meditates on Jeon’s sacrifice as he witnesses the suicide of another young man, Kim Sang-jin – a student who quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words that democracy is an outcome of struggle at a rally at Seoul National University before publicly slashing his belly. He sees the tragedy of Jeon’s death as the “single spark” which lit a fire under the democracy movement, a torch he wants to pick up and keep aflame to guide them towards a better future.

20 years later, Park may be acknowledging that some battles have been won in a newly democratised Korea as Kim looks on with satisfaction in a peaceful marketplace while a student carries the book he has written about Jeon Tae-il under his arm, but implicitly suggests that not enough has changed and the same battles Jeon was fighting are still being fought. A melancholy meditation on political martyrdom, art, and legacy, A Single Spark pays tribute to those who gave their lives for a fairer world but is equally intent that their sacrifice must not be forgotten.


A Single Spark was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Maggie (메기, Yi Ok-seop, 2018)

Maggie poster 1“When we fall into a pit, what we need to do, is not dig any further but quickly climb out” according to a mysterious post-it discovered by a nurse when picking up the laundry (apparently inexpertly performed by her preferred cleaning service). The aphorism turns out to belong to Doctor Lee (Moon So-ri), the head physician at Love of Maria hospital where the titular Maggie (메기), a catfish, lives in a small tank observing the life around her and sometimes predicting earthquakes and other earth shattering events. A surrealist odyssey across the “pitfalls” of modern society, Yi Ok-seop’s quirky debut feature ponders the ramifications of distance as her various heroes weigh up the nature of “truth” as an absolutist concept.

Narrated by Maggie, the drama begins when the radiographer and her boyfriend are unexpectedly snapped during an intimate moment in the X-Ray room. The picture is then stolen and held up for everyone to see, at which point nurse Yoon-young (Lee Joo-young) worries that she and her boyfriend Sung-won (Koo Kyo-hwan) have been caught out using the privacy of the X-ray booth for unintended purposes. As Maggie says, no one pays much attention to who took the photo only to who might be in it, which is why the entire hospital, except Doctor Lee, ring in sick the next day with only Yoon-young turning up in the morning with the intention to resign. Figuring out what must have happened (and seeing as she’s the only one not embarrassed we can guess who took the photo), Doctor Lee is very upset to realise that the entirety of her staff has probably lied to her. With her intense belief in humanity shaken, Doctor Lee decides to engage in a trust game with her new best friend, Nurse Yoon-young, and simply choose to believe what they’re told, testing their hypothesis by visiting a random employee to verify if they really are “sick”.

Meanwhile, as a result of the earthquakes Maggie intermittently predicts,  mysterious sinkholes have begun appearing all over the nation. This is good news in one sense because it provides lots of extra work for otherwise unoccupied young men like Sung-won who have lost out in Korea’s insanely competitive economy. Like Sung-won, the other men on his team are also well-educated types who otherwise wouldn’t be considering manual work and are hoping for something better once the sinkhole business finally clears up. Mistrust, however, also works its way into their relationship when Sung-won loses a precious white gold ring given to him by Yoon-young, later becoming convinced that one of his colleagues has swiped it.

The loss of the ring leads to an increasing unease between Yoon-young and her boyfriend which is deepened by a visit from Sung-won’s ex who suggests there may have been problems in their relationship which she feels Yoon-young ought to be aware of. Though Sung-won seems sweet natured and laidback, never having acted in any way that would have given Yoon-young cause for concern, she begins to doubt him – suddenly worried by his overly violent crushing of a can out in the street. Doctor Lee’s advice is to simply ask Sung-won directly if the accusations are true, but Yoon-young can’t seem to do it and continues living along side him somewhat resentfully as she eventually comes to the decision to “believe” her friend at face value without investigating further.

“The truth cannot exist wholesomely”, according to Maggie’s “father” (Kwon Hae-hyo). It will always be polluted by self-interest and personal bias. As Doctor Lee says, there will always be people who believe you and people who don’t, so perhaps a healthy level of cynicism is something you need to accept in order to go on living in the world. Even Love of Maria Hospital is not immune to the disease of misrepresentation – a former convent given over as a place of healing it was later bought by an arch capitalist and is now run as a private hospital business (not that it appears to have many “customers”), despite Doctor Lee’s rather amusing ad which proclaims it “of the patients, by the patients, for the patients”.

Finally Yoon-young concedes she’ll need to simply ask Sung-won about his past and gets an honest response, but his honesty only seems to see him falling into a deep pit of despair, calling out from the bottom in the hope of being understood. A surreal exploration of contemporary social woes from the rabidly capitalist society to the growing distance between people in an increasingly interconnected age, Maggie attempts to find the emotional honesty sweet spot but discovers that trust, like everything else, is a complicated business.


Maggie screens on 13th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on 17th/18th July.

Interview with director Yi Ok-seop from the Busan International Film Festival