Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Top Ten List #4 A Dream of Iron (Cheol-ae-kum)

A DREAM OF IRON (Cheol-ae-kum)            A                         
S. Korea  (100 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Kelvin Kyung Kun Park

Originally conceived as a three-channel museum video art instillation, 철의 꿈 (鐵夢, A Dream of Iron), 3 Channel Installation - Vimeo (1:48), where three large projections run simultaneously in 30-minute loops, as shown at the Daegu Art Factory Survey Exhibition in March 2013, where there is no beginning and no end, as the viewer is free to move around the room and leave at any time, which, according to the director, represents a style of film more liberating than a feature film.  But this Korean manufacturing film develops into an intoxicating and impressionistic essay on massive, large-scale machinery that become an extension of man’s reach, as he is able to create machines that are so much bigger and stronger than anything he is capable of himself, where the colossal machines are reverently described as gods, as humans worship them on such a massive scale, becoming dependent on them to survive.  While the machines come to represent the hopes and dreams of the future, ushering in a more modern era, it also comes at a price, suggesting the spiritual domain, the inner sanctity of man has been sacrificed at the foot of the giant machines, where Park’s somber film style documents on a grand scale the rituals of an industrial age, becoming an immaculately beautiful requiem for the remnants of a dying age.  Featuring some of the most extraordinary cinematography by the director himself that literally takes one’s breath away, where viewing this on as large a screen as possible can reduce one to tears simply by the rapturous beauty of the film which takes on a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic tone, as if humans once lived in gargantuan steel cities ruled by machines.  Unlike the Wiseman film National Gallery (2014) which surprisingly doesn’t allow moments of introspection due to the constant explanations, this more wordless effort is fertile grounds for quiet contemplation.  The stunning power of the images has not been seen since the seemingly endless opening shot of Jennifer Baichwall’s MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (2006), a slow tracking shot down a side aisle of a huge Chinese iron assembly plant of 23,000 workers, revealing endless rows of bright yellow-shirted factory workers sitting at their work stations performing a synchronized monotony of repetitious motions, many of whom seem relieved to stop and stare at the camera’s obvious intrusion, where the accumulation of ever-expanding space defies all known concepts of rationality.  These technological wastelands drive the nation’s economy but leave the workers doomed to indifference and solitude.

What Park does, however, is strive for the profound by magnifying the extraordinary beauty of size, where cinema has rarely concentrated on filming objects of this immense magnitude before without being seen at some distance, like the lift-off sequence of a space craft into outer space, or resorting to fictional movie recreations, capturing commanding images through a choreography of slow pans, obtaining views never before seen, where the viewer is literally immersed in an industrial aura of seemingly endless time and space.  Shot in the port city of Ulsan along Mipo Bay, home of one of the world’s largest shipyards, the director shoots at POSCO (Pohang Steel Company) and the Hyundai Shipyard, both playing a key role in the postwar economic development and industrialization of South Korea, where the company name “Hyundai” means “modernity,” playing into a myth that corporate industrialization has been at the forefront of a modern social movement since the 60’s, but the film documents many of the accompanying protests, including strikes by workers both in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s protesting against the giant “Goliath crane,” where 78 workers actually occupied the crane, a prelude to many other “high altitude” battles to come, as these goliaths introduce new and unprecedented dangers into the work place, where welding at that altitude is particularly hazardous.  As a result, they try to build as much as they can on the ground and then hoist it to the elevated heights needed.  By photographing this amazing process, the director transforms this bleak industrial landscape into a poetic exploration of the sublime, where the power of the visual tableaux is awe-inspiring and ominous, creating an astonishing montage set to Mahler’s 1st Symphony, 3rd Movement, played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelík, A DREAM OF IRON Trailer | Festival 2014 YouTube (2:46), which is quite simply one of the most ravishingly beautiful sequences of cinema seen all year.  The slow precision of the camera movements are similar to Kubrick’s monumental outer space movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where the human eye is simply captivated by what the future holds, while at the same time reveals a kind of unspoken mysticism from Tarkovsky’s messier, less sterile version of the future in SOLARIS (1972), where the symphonic imagery of steel in motion is also accompanied by age-old Buddhist monk spiritual chants, continually connecting the present to the past.

Originating with the silent film short Manhatta (1921), where the city of New York is reduced to an abstraction of images, which was followed by a similar treatment of Paris in Alberto Cavalcanti’s NOTHING BUT TIME (Rien que les heures, 1926), the 20’s was an era when experimental filmmakers began exploring the rapid growth in urban development, capturing the rhythm and motion in montage films known as “City Symphonies,” including Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), André Sauvage's ÉTUDES SUR PARIS (1928), and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929).  In Park’s mind, the metal ships under construction remind him of the awe that was once associated with giant whales, depicted in the Neolithic wall drawings of the nearby Bangudae Petroglyphs, where over 200 images of animals and people are drawn onto the side of the Bangudae Mountain, dated somewhere between 3500 and 7000 years ago.  It was only after whales were conquered by humans and began being hunted and captured for commercial use that they lost their sense of epic grandeur, where they were once seen as near mythological creatures.  When seen in the ocean, they remain a colossal figure of undisputed nobility, where the sounds they make can sound musical, adding a sense of artistry and co-existence when heard interacting with the industrial images, where the film retains a religious sense of divine glorification.  Briefly interjected into this observational documentary is a personal, diary-like narration that suggests the narrator’s former girlfriend has just left him to seek enlightenment as a shaman, where she wishes to pursue a relationship with God.  In response, the director goes on a similar quest to seek out the remnants of new earthly gods, which offer their own sense of undefinable wonder.  Using a mix of electronic and acoustic music from Paulo Vivacqua, the effect can be strangely hypnotic, offering its own sense of sacred insight by connecting with another medium, where film can turn the abstract into something poetically comprehensible, imparting euphoric feelings of joy and reverence.  A style in contrast to J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), where old-world iron horse style trains have been replaced by modernized bullet trains, this film examines every level of production, where we hear from one of the first female laborers as she puts on the various protective layers of uniform, covering every part of her body before she steps out to weld large metal pieces together, but we also see streams of workers arriving to work while another shift is leaving simultaneously, creating hordes of human congestion on the street as a traffic policeman stands on a pedestal directing traffic with a series if strange hand motions.  While individual workers are discretely isolated in their own space performing their assigned tasks, what’s most striking are the bold and terrifying images where constantly monitored computers are pouring enormous vats of hot, molten iron or lifting gigantic ship parts that only the massive “Goliath” cranes can hoist in the air, creating unforgettable, mind-boggling images that offer a sense of the sacred and the sublime.  

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