Underground (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A calm and thoughtful observation of subway workers

South Korean documentary film “Underground” simply observes a bunch of various subway workers who have devoted themselves to making their public system work everyday for millions of citizens out there. Although it does not explain that much to us as austerely sticking to its calm and detached position, the documentary lets us understand how their system works in addition to appreciating their professional dedication, and we come to discern the importance of their labor rights more than before.

At first, the documentary begins with a group of male senior students of an industrial high school in Busan. As reflected by the very first scene of the documentary, they all are about to graduate, so they now must be serious about getting a job after their graduation, and the documentary comes to focus a bit on one of these students as he considers getting hired at a contract company which has been associated with the Busan subway.

Around that point, the documentary begins to look around several different parts of the Busan subway system. We see a big factory where disassembled subway cars are examined and repaired everyday. We watch a middle-aged subway conductor who has diligently driven subway trains for years. We observe female cleaners assigned to one of the main subway stations in the city. We glimpse on a few employees who steadily monitor many corners of that station in their control room. And we also look closely at a group of workers checking the railroads of one subway line.

While the camera often approaches close to these and many other people in the documentary, director Kim Jeong-Keun chooses not to inform us on who they are or how they work, and he simply lets the camera convey to us what matters a lot to its human subjects. Doing their respective jobs well everyday is certainly No.1 priority to many of them, but they also care a lot about their labor rights, and one crucial scene in the documentary shows a bunch of employees attending a meeting with a labor right activist from Seoul. Although they may not understand everything this activist tells them, they do believe that they deserve to be treated better by their big employer, and we are not so surprised when the documentary later tells us a bit about how things have been difficult for many non-regular employees of the Busan subway, who have been unfairly regarded as a sort of second-class workers.

Anyway, the system keeps working as usual, and we get a series of unadorned moments showing how its many employees serve the system and the public. At that big factory for repair and maintenance, we see many workers carefully working on various small and big parts of a disassembled subway car, and this moment will surely remind you of how every moment of yours on subway depends a lot on these and many other repair/maintenance workers out there.

In case of the cleaning ladies in that subway station, they remind us of how those clean subway stations have been taken for granted by many of us. Several hours before the subway station is opened to passengers, these ladies work a lot on the floors of their subway station, and they still have to work while their subway station is opened, though they do have some time for rest as shown from a small cheerful scene unfolded in their little private place.

Even at night, the system does not sleep at all as many other employees do many different repair and maintenance jobs along its several subway lines, and the documentary gives us some close glimpses into how these nighttime employees work every night. Once the last subway train is stopped and the whole subway line is shut down around midnight, a group of nighttime workers check out one area after another along the railroads of the subway line, and the camera looks at them for a while when they have to do some necessary repair at a certain spot.

In case of that middle-aged subway train conductor, he cannot help but feel a bit nostalgic when he talks about his early years, but the documentary does not dwell on his good old past at all while clearly pointing out the possible end of his occupation in the future. Like many labor jobs, his job will be completely automatized someday, and there is a little bittersweet moment when he gets on a new subway train fully controlled by its computer system.

While shuffling among its many different parts, the documentary does not lose its focus at all as gradually completing its big picture, and then it eventually goes back to that male senior student introduced to us at the beginning. Along with many of his classmates, he gets to know more about the range of his possible choices in the future, and he subsequently chooses to work at that contract company, but we cannot help but worry about him as well as other young people not so different from him. Sure, he is well aware of the possible change to come in his field sooner or later, and he remains rather optimistic nonetheless, but, considering the current industrial trend, I think the future may not be that hopeful for them during next several decades.

Often reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s recent works such as “City Hall” (2020), “Underground” may feel a bit too dry for you in the beginning, but it is a rewarding experience coupled with some indirect enlightenment for many of you. Even at this point, our life depends a lot on those hard-working laborers who do deserve better, and the documentary did a fairly good job of reminding us of that inarguable fact again.

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