Just by simply observing and listening, “Scenery” gives us an experience both familiar and alien. As introducing a group of various foreign workers in Seoul one by one, this calm, quiet documentary looks around the various hidden corners here and there in the city I have been familiar with for years, and a simple but haunting picture of different people and their different lives inside this big international city is gradually formed along the process. As the people respectively coming from Philippines, Cambodia, Thai, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and East Timor, they look different and speak different, but they all came to South Korea for the same reason, and we come to look at them closer as they tell us about what they dreamed during many nights in the world still feeling alien to them.
The things they dreamed feel trivial at first, but their dreams indirectly tell us many things about them – including how much they miss their families left at their hometowns or how much they want to succeed or how they feel about their current lives. In case of Augustino, a worker from East Timor, he says he frequently saw his mother in his dreams after coming to South Korea. Though he does not tell a lot about his feelings besides that, the fact that his mother died while he was working in South Korea brings a sad, melancholic feeling to the scene of him waiting for his plane at the Inchon International Airport.
While the usual night dreams of Thasila, an amiable Sri Lankan worker, simply reveals his small wish to have a better life someday, the personal dream told by Bangladeshi worker Oaliullah Bhuiyan is poignant to hear. Separated from his dear wife, he had dreamed about taking her to Jeju Island, but he has never been to that island, and he even does not know where Jeju Island is although he must have heard about it at least once. Right after this scene, the movie makes a momentary stop at Jeju Island, and we naturally come to wonder about the possible difference between reality and his dream – and whether he will come to realize his dream someday.
The movie continues to listen to other foreign workers working and living in Seoul. Some can speak Korean fairly well while others speak in English or their native languages instead, and we sometimes see them at work. Most of them are menial employees working at factories, and, though they do not talk much about their work condition, you can sense the hard facts of their lives as observing their jobs and their residences. Even before we listen to Xu Chun Ming, a Chinese worker who has been tired of working in a meat shop, we already see how grueling his daily work is, and, while watching him and others relentlessly processing not only meat but also the other parts from pigs, I thought again about an undeniable fact that foreign workers usually do many difficult, thankless jobs which not many of us are willing to do.
And some of us are not very nice to them despite their diligence. In case of Shekhal Mamun from Bangladesh, who now works as a carpentry teacher, seems to be well-adjusted to the South Korean society after long years, but what he dreamed repeatedly was the day he decided to quit his job at some factory during his early years in South Korea. From how he phlegmatically tells about his dream, we can only guess how much he endured the unfair treatments from his boss and South Korean co-workers during that time – and how that painful memory still remains somewhere in his mind in spite of his current improved status.
Through its fluid stream-of-consciousness approach, the documentary freely shuffles these interviews and other ones with the interesting images captured from Seoul, and it reminds us of how Seoul has many different kinds of people inside its corners – and how much they have been becoming the parts of the city. We see these people going for work just like any other Seoul citizens in the morning, and we also see their living areas, which feel like different worlds at times compared to the other parts of Seoul. When a mosque for Muslim workers was shown at one point, I noticed that the main doctrine of Islam was written in Korean above its main entrance, and that somehow took me back to my small childhood memory with the mosque in my hometown(maybe because of its exotic design, I thought it was a mere fancy spa, by the way).
One of the most engaging moments in the documentary comes from a photo shop located on a busy street where we see Chinese letters written everywhere on placards and signboards and notices. As the camera observing on its gentle owner and a young girl in its static position, he casually and warmly asks several personal questions to her while packaging the photographs for her, and we get to know a little more about her as she innocently answers to his questions. The interaction may be short, and he probably has gone through the same routine many times before, but it is always nice to see two strangers responding to each other with warmth and sincerity.
The director Zhang Lu keeps the distance between his camera and his subjects to certain degrees while never saying more than what his interviewees say, but the documentary is an absorbing experience thanks to the series of the mesmerizing moments generated throughout its running time. Besides those memorable foggy/cloudy scenes in the film, the documentary captures the moments of surprising beauty from many shabby or mundane sights in Seoul while patiently looking on them, and there is a good scene showing Uzbekistan worker Sherzod Akbarov and his fellow co-worker at their busy workplace. Although we do not understand what exactly they are doing at first, this is a vivid sight of labor and dedication with industrial noises as its vital music, and the final result of their work is ordinary but beautiful when it is fully shown on the screen at the end of this scene.
As a Korean Chinese director born in Jilin, Zhang Lu has been an outsider at the fringe of South Korean society just like his interviewees, and some of his films were interesting as the stories set between China and Korea. My first experience with his work was “Dooman River”(2010), and I was particularly impressed by his keen sense of mood, space, and people for showing the world I am not very familiar with, and I also admired how he ably pulled a short but harrowing moment of emotional eruption at the ending after steadily maintaining the low-key tone for that resonant finale.
Although it demands some patience to us in its slow, serene pace, “Scenery” is a poetic work of humble humanity emphatically looking at the people usually overlooked by others in the South Korean society, and Zhang Lu made a very good documentary film while effortlessly applying his own artistic sensibility to the documentary genre. Though it never directly addresses their social difficulties, the documentary lets us see their fragile social positions for ourselves, and it eventually strikes an effective emotional chord during its last scene even though it still sticks to its understated way of revealing the feelings below the surface. When the movie is over, Seoul will probably look a little different to you than before – and you may come to think about them more.