Sewing Sisters (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): When they were young and defiant laborers

South Korean documentary “Sewing Sisters” illuminates real-life stories which deserve to be told more and more as the hidden parts of the South Korean labor union history. As simply listening to the seemingly ordinary heroines of these real-life tales, the documentary gradually takes us to their hard and difficult past, and we come to sense more of how much they struggled for their labor rights during that gloomy time.

At first, the documentary introduces to us three plain middle-aged ladies. As these ladies walk together in some place, they talk with each other a bit, and then they come across three sewing machines waiting for them. They soon work on these three sewing machines respectively, and that surely makes them more open about their shared past in the 1970s.

They and several other middle-aged women gladly tell us about how things were not so good for them when they started to work in Pyeonghwa Market of Seoul during the early 1970s, which was one of the main centers of South Korean clothing industry during that period. Although many of them and other female workers were quite young, they had no choice from the beginning as they had to earn the living for themselves and their families, and their labor condition in Pyeonghwa Market during that time was pretty bad to say the least. For example, they were usually pushed to work more than 12 hours per day, and they were not even paid properly for their frequent overtime work.

However, there came an incident which made them and many other laborers open their eyes to their labor rights and welfare. On November 13th, 1970, a young male laborer/labor right activist named Chun Tae-il died not long after committing an act of self-immolation in public, and this horrible happening consequently led to a public uproar over the poor work environment of millions of laborers in South Korea.

As the South Korean government eventually promised to pay more attention to labor rights and work environment than before, many young female laborers of Pyeonghwa Market subsequently came to have considerable enlightenment, especially when the space for labor classes for them was set on the top of Pyeonghwa Market building. Whenever their working hour was over, they could go their labor classes, and many of the interviewees in the documentary still remember well many valuable things they learned during that time. Besides getting more knowledge on the Labor Standards Act, they also learned other useful things including how to make a bank account, and they certainly felt empowered by what they learned for the first time.

However, that good time did not last that long, because they and many other laborers who subsequently formed the Cheonggye Clothes Union along with them were regarded as pesky obstacles by the power that be. When they heard that the place for their labor classes would be soon removed, they were certainly ready to defend their precious place by any means necessary, but they also had to be very careful for not getting their union leaders involved into their trouble. After all, those people with power and money were eager to label the union leaders as communists or North Korean spies, and the South Korean police had no problem with squeezing a false confession from anyone who happened to be marked.

On September 9th, 1977, a bunch of laborers of Pyeonghwa Market, many of whom were incidentally young female workers, began the demonstration at the place for their labor classes, and several interviewees still remember well how urgent and desperate the situation was on that unforgettable day. Once they began their demonstration and then expressed their several demands, their spot was soon surrounded by a bunch of policemen ready to strike them down at any point, but they were not daunted much mainly because of their youthful defiance. Yes, it was apparent to everyone that there was not much chance of winning from the very beginning, but they were ready to fight to the end, and they did fight hard against their opponents although there eventually came a point where they had no choice but to surrender themselves to the police.

However, the situation was not over for them at all even at that point, and what followed next was pretty grueling for them to say the least. Besides brutally suppressed by those policemen at the spot, they were frequently harassed and mistreated by the detectives in charge of questioning them, and some of the interviewees in the documentary still vividly remember that horrible time. For example, they were incarcerated for more than 10 days in a police station while not allowed to have a meeting with their family members, and they were not even allowed to change their clothes or underwears.

Nonetheless, they tried to maintain some dignity even when they were unjustly sentenced to a few years of imprisonment, and one interviewee remembers well when she had unexpected moments of empathy and understanding toward the cops and the judge handling her case. When she made a brief but clear argument on her innocence in front of the judge, she instantly sensed how reluctant the judge was to punish her and her female laborers, and she still has no bad feeling at all toward the judge or those cops who, like the judge, simply did whatever they were ordered to do despite their growing reluctance.

As the documentary continues to listen to her and other female interviewees, their stories become more vivid in our mind, and we also observe how these ladies are still full of life even after more than 40 years. They are still proud of how much they fought for their rights, and the documentary later gives us a haunting scene where some of them walk and look around where they once worked. As remembering again who they were once, they show sincere gratitude to their younger selves, and then there comes an emotionally elevating moment you will have to see for yourself.

In conclusion, “Sewing Sisters”, directed by Kim Jung-young and Lee Hyuk-rae, is a modest but powerful documentary about the unsung efforts of South Korean female laborers in the 1970s, and it will surely make a good double feature show with “Factory Complex” (2014), another excellent South Korean documentary about the hidden female narratives of the South Korean labor union history. In short, it is one of the better South Korean documentaries I have watched during last several years, and I assure you that you will have many moments of enlightenment besides being moved by those remarkable women in the documentary.

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