'A Dream of Iron' (Cheol-ae-kum): SIFF Review

Dream of Iron Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of SIFF

Dream of Iron Film Still - H 2014

Korean essay film draws unsatisfying connections between epic and individual concerns.

Kelvin Kyung Kun Park meditates on love, gods, whales and shipbuilding in South Korea.

SEATTLE — An essay film finding links between heavy industry, the lives of whales, spiritual quests and a failed love affair, Kelvin Kyung Kun Park's A Dream of Iron is an occasionally entrancing experience that doesn't come together as a feature-length film. Originally conceived as a multi-channel video art installation, the present version received the NETPAC prize at the 2014 Berlinale but will have limited arthouse appeal in the US.

In a somber voiceover, the filmmaker reads a letter to a former lover who left him saying she wanted to pursue an experience of God; scenes of rituals in an unidentified temple suggest she became a Buddhist monk. In response, the director goes on a quest to find a "new god" of his own: At a massive Hyundai facility in the South Korean city Ulsan, he pairs vintage material documenting the factory's construction with stately present-day footage. The new material sometimes recalls the work of Edward Burtynsky in Manufactured Landscapes, and when paired with the mix of electronic and acoustic music in Paulo Vivacqua's score, can be hypnotic.

But scenes of individual workers and engineers inside that plant are too prosaic for the tone poem the film is attempting to construct. Abandoning this material might have made the connection with whales more compelling: The director notes that ancient petroglyphs of whales were swallowed up under lakes created by dam construction in the area; his voiceover ties the "sublime" experience ancient people had of whales, conjured in some near-gorgeous underwater footage, to the awe 20th-century Koreans had of the iron works that lifted them out of poverty.

There's something in all this, though the director undercuts these themes by repeatedly returning to musings over a heartbreak we have no reason to care much about. (The essay's "new god" conceit doesn't require the distracting allusions to an ex-girlfriend's reasons for ending their relationship.) The superhuman powers mankind has invented, allowing Hyundai's workers to wield enormous vats of molten iron and lift gigantic ship parts with a "Goliath crane," are awe-inspiring all by themselves, and the graceful beasts that once ruled the sea make an excellent reference point. Dream clutters that picture with the concerns of individual characters, dragging on in ways that caused a healthy percentage of the audience here to walk out half an hour before the screening was over.

Production company: Kyung Pictures

Director-Screenwriter-Director of photography-Editor: Kelvin Kyung Kun Park

Producer: Kyungmi Kim

Music: Paulo Vivacqua

No rating, 100 minutes