A SINGLE SPARK (1995)
A suitably bleak but deeply powerful biopic of the 22-year old who ended his life through self-immolation protesting for workers’ rights
Jeon Tae-il holds an important place in the history of the workers’ right movement in Korea and Park Kwang-su’s film finds a tactful and respectful way to show his life and its tragic end in 1970.
Director Park was partly enabled to achieve this with one of the screenwriters being Lee Chang-dong (Burning, Secret Sunshine, Poetry) before he had started his directing career and established himself as Korea’s master of the emotional drama.
A Single Spark is a split story feature, part set further in the past as we follow the events before Tae-il’s (Hong Kyung-in) death and the other half as we follow his biographer Kim Yeong-soo (Moon Sung-geun) five years later.
Tae-il is a tailor and starts working at the Seoul Peace Market, where he witnesses squalid working conditions, with cruel bosses demanding unthinkably long shifts.
The conditions mean that workers have tuberculosis due to poor ventilation in the packed working areas, with workers also having forced injections of amphetamines to keep them awake and ensuring overtime is completed.
In this grim reality of the sweatshop setting, Tae-il tries to comfort and support his broken colleagues, eventually realising he must bring attention to their fate.
Tae-il learns that work standard laws exist to protect workers and even the most basic of such rights are not being observed at the market.
While he successfully gains newspaper coverage and is allowed an audience with the market’s bosses, promises are broken and delayed, leaving Tae-il to perform an act that will change the direction of workers’ rights in Korea forever.
When the film comes to show Tae-il’s self-immolation, it creates some of the most memorable and powerful images in the history of Korean cinema.
The film splits between the black-and-white past of Tae-il and the colourised times of Yeong-soo. Alongside being a neat visual cue to which timeline you are within, it also offers a bleak a pallet for the workers of the past. However, despite the bright colours of what comes next, very little seems to have changed.
Yeong-soo, a fellow activist, is attempting to write a book about Tae-il’s life and cause while trying to avoid capture himself, with the police constantly hunting him.
Some of the cuts between the two timelines is masterfully handled – for example, a knock on the door in Tae-il’s world and someone else in Yeong-soo’s world enters.
The film is an important feature for those charting the struggle for workers’ rights and the implications when such rights do not exist. Tae-il’s death mobilised workers to take up the struggle, eventually creating the labour unions that secured workers’ rights in Korea.
Fittingly financed largely by public subscription with the closing credits acknowledging nearly 5,000 names, it shows the sacrifice that workers’ right activists of the past suffered to secure protections that today we take for granted.