It’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.