South Korean documentary film “Sister J” gives a dry but sensitive glimpse into the longtime struggle of one ordinary man who fought along with his colleagues for more than 10 years. As shown in the documentary, they really tried hard to get their justice despite many moments of desperation and frustration, and the documentary is often poignant as closely observing how they struggled to endure one day after another via solidarity and some occasional moments of joy.
At first, the documentary simply introduces its plain but unforgettable hero. His name is Lee Jae-choon, and he worked at a guitar factory for around 30 years, but he and many other workers were suddenly laid off in 2007 by their employer without any compensation, and that was the beginning of their fight which turned out to be much longer than expected. No matter how much they protested outside, they were callously ignored by their employer, and their following court trials only led to more frustration and exasperation for them as those judges kept siding with the employer.
Nonetheless, Lee, who is affectionately called “Sister Jae-choon” by director Lee Soo-jung at times, and his fellow strikers continue to fight even after their appeal is rejected by the supreme court. They often sleep in their tent on a street, and we become more aware of the growing desperation among them. There is still some possibility for their reinstatement, but the employer is still adamant about not listening to them at all, and they all have lots of doubt on whether they can actually win in the end.
As he goes through one hard day after another, Lee causally reveals more of himself in front of the camera. As he frankly admits to us via his written words shown during the opening scene, he was just a petty employee who was timid and introverted during all those years at the factory, but the ongoing struggle made him much more active and courageous than before. Although he surely looks mild and unremarkable on the surface, he has been actually one of the leading members in his group, and he is also willing to express more of his thoughts and feelings to others via various activities including an amateur theater production, where he plays Ophelia of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.
The mood becomes a bit more cheerful as the documentary observes him preparing to play Ophelia in front of a small group of audiences. While he and his fellow main cast members are understandably amateurish, they all do their best for making their humble production work, and Lee certainly has some fun as earnestly playing his female character.
We later seem him participating in another theater production which is rather abstract but quite straightforward about what he and his colleagues are going through. Although we just look at him from his behind as he stands in the aisle and then delivers one simple line toward the stage, the dramatic effect from that is palpable to us as we reflect more on how the legal system denied any justice for them during all those years.
Things get more desperate for Lee and his colleagues in the late 2010s, but the documentary, which is mostly shot in black and white film of 1.33:1 ratio, steadily maintains its calm attitude as before. At one point, we see Lee entering a small apartment where he has lived with his two daughters, but the daughters happen to be absent, and Lee tells us how much he has been conflicted between his ongoing fight and his daughters’ welfare. As he frankly admits to us, his daughters have suffered a lot due to his frequent absence, and that makes him have more doubt on whether it is really right to continue what he and his colleagues have been doing for more than 10 years.
Not long after that, it seems that there finally comes a possible moment of breakthrough for them, though they remain against the wall as usual. Lee and several colleagues of his come to confront their employer at last, and they surely have lots of things to say, but they are constantly blocked by one of those company guys working under the employer, who remains silent without saying anything at all until he comes to have a little private meeting with Lee and other protesters in his office.
Regardless of whatever happened in the room, Lee and his colleagues continue to fight. For bringing more public awareness on their ongoing struggle, they hold a big public demonstration to show more of their will and determination, and then Lee and several colleagues of his begin a hunger strike. Again, the situation looks pretty hopeless, but Lee and his colleagues are determined to go all the way, and we later see them getting some public support from Buddhist monks praying outside their tent.
I will not go into details into what follows next, but I can tell you instead that I admire how the documentary delivers a moment of little poignancy with thoughtful restraint. Things are not changed much for Lee even after he and his colleagues finally came to achieve their goal, but he feels much better than before, and we come to sense that he will keep going as he always did for no less than 4464 days.
Overall, “Sister J” requires some patience from you due to its rather dry approach, but it will gradually engage you once you accept how it is about its main subject. To be frank with you, I wish the documentary gave more background information, but, after watching it, I wanted to know more about what Lee and his colleagues went through, and I guess I will have to do some homework after writing this review.