Kim Jeong-keun’s “Underground” (더그라운드) – 2019 Busan Film Review


The brilliant documentary “Underground” (더그라운드) begins with a series of widescreen shots showing the detailed inner workings of the Busan Metro system.  Devoid of a musical soundtrack, these sequences are occasionally interrupted with sound bites from the various workers who comprise small part of this massive subterranean labyrinth.  Subway riders may never see or meet these individuals face-to-face, but they are the ones cleaning trains, testing doors and tracks after hours, keeping stations tidy and monitoring incidents via CCTV.  While this introduction to a largely unseen world can feel a bit too extensive, the pictures themselves are so compelling that the minutia of these exacting tasks reel the viewer in.

But as the footage continues, it becomes increasingly clear that this work is not without its hazards.  Heavy machinery, odd hours and outsized equipment complicate the mental stresses of these jobs, which often require considerable social isolation, repetition and little margin for error to get through a shift.  Suddenly, the humming background noise of diegetic sound mostly stops and the narrative shifts gears into a meeting where Busan Metro workers are being informed of what their rights should be, how they deserve better contracts, the possibility of a strike and the benefits of a labor union.  From that point onward, the dangers of the job become a subset of the overall picture of long-term employment prospects in South Korea in general – far more bleak than optimistic. One subject, a recent high school graduate, speaks of the dilemma of whether to enter the workforce right away or pursue university studies.  By choosing the former manual labor route, he reasons, he will save his family several years of tuition money for a degree that will likely not guarantee employment anyway.

Kim’s previous works also focused on workers’ rights in Korea.  “Get on the Bus” and “The Island of Shadows” focused on Hanjin Heavy Industries, a shipbuilding company that experienced worker protests from 2010 to 2011 due to proposed layoffs.  For “Underground,” Kim was granted unprecedented access to film the Busan Metro due to its status as a public institution.  At a post-screening Q&A session for the film on Oct. 9, he said that he was able to shoot over a period of four years.  He first got the idea to document all the behind the scenes footage after observing similar work processes at a shoe factory, where he worked for five years.  “Even though there are so many people working behind the scenes diligently, there is not enough attention paid [to them],” Kim said.  One thing is for certain following the conclusion of “Underground”: the viewer will never look at any subway system in the same way again.

“Underground” made its world premiere at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival.