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Chicago International Film Festival: ‘A Dream of Iron’ Rewards the Patient Viewer

a dream of iron chicago international film festival

For a country that is 15th in world GDP, South Korea does not get a lot of international fanfare. This intellectual blind spot makes A Dream of Iron‘s meditation on Korean industrialism over the past 50 years a vital contemporary commentary. In astrology lore, a “dream of iron” is one where the dreamer fears sitting judgment of others and whoever controls the iron has control of the situation. If Park’s compelling art film/ documentary hybrid is to be believed, then South Korea’s breakneck industrialization after the unbelievable destruction of the Korea War could be seen as trying to take control of the iron.

Maybe because Japan and China have been in more precarious positions the past few years, but I feel as though the average American would not finger South Korea as Asia’s highest income earner. Director Kelvin Kyung Kun Park brings out the backbone of South Korea’s success with a unique, local perspective in Ulsan, home of the world’s largest car manufacture plant. The tone of the film is slow and pensive, never moving too quickly from a grand shot of towering crane to aerial shots of the city’s huge, metal infrastructure.

The dots never get connected quickly, but the reverential cinematography towards Korean industry hints at its growing roles as a new Korean religion. A particularly strong moment comes about 20 minutes in when the blips of a whale slowly transition to the drums of a traditional Korean ceremony, which then return to swimming dolphins before a somewhat harsher cut to a Hyundai employee at the factory. Through visual style over concrete facts, Park suggests the movement from Korea’s ancient whale-based religion to traditional Confucianism and Buddhism occurred gradually, but Korea’s industrialism boom happened in a historical instant. Park periodically returns to a series of ancient religious petroglyphs that have since become submerged due to a nearby factory adding a heartfelt jab on the real implications on Korean history.

The origin for Park’s interest in this subject came from his grandfather who operated a scrap metal business in Seoul that became largely irrelevant as the years went on. Despite this being Park’s first feature film, he expertly juxtaposes archival footage of Koreans with eyes of full of hope awaiting Hyundai’s first manufacturing plant opening with an unsettling eulogy to a Hyundai executive given by a man who proudly describes ignoring his wife on her death bed so he could work more. Industrialism brought perhaps one of the world’s biggest national transitions in recent years catapulting South Korea into the worldwide economy, which according to Park seems to have come at the price of almost religious devotion.

Park took a greater amount of control than often seen in feature films by writing the script, shooting a large part of the film and directing it, perhaps because of his distinct connection to the subject matter. Sparse use of narrative elements prevent A Dream of Iron from erring farther into Park’s experience with video installation and performance art. The most conventional documentary-style profile follows a woman who stumbled into a job at Hyundai twenty years ago with the idea of it being temporary. The Hyundai factory has been a staple of this woman’s life, donning the layers of her safety mask reminiscent of the traditional talchum ceremony.

Narrative moments often devolve, or evolve in a certain sense, into contemplative industrial scenes scored to a lo-fi soundtrack that manages to echo both traditional music and the whirs and clangs of an industrial plant. The distant shots of beautifully lit industrial machinery say what the narration never explicitly delineates – these are the new iron idols. Towards the end there is a five-minute continuous take of one piece of machinery being placed down by a crane, interacting with the light forming new and interesting shapes and visual illusions before reaching the ground. Apart from simply making an unidentifiable metal structure become art (for a few minutes at least) Park addresses both the reality of modern South Korea and the potential that has for the country moving forward.