Among the dispossessed

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Among the dispossessed

The film opens with a middle-aged man sitting under a bridge, wearing a shabby tennis cap and the South Korean national flag draped over his back. Cars are passing by, their headlights flashing. The man mumbles to himself, then suddenly starts singing.
“If there were a light in our heart,” he sings, “the summer would be blue. The mountains, the plains, the trees and the leaves would be covered in blue, because we grow, seeing the blue sky.”
Then the camera swiftly pulls back, capturing the streetlights of the Dongdaemun Stadium area in northern Seoul, and the dark screen is filled with dizzying yellow.
This documentary, “A Record of the Unemployed Homeless After IMF Korea,” was shot in 1998 by filmmaker Park Jong-pil. It was screened at independent film venues for small audiences of social educators and civic groups.
Now Mr. Park is working on a follow-up, due early in 2005, that focuses on how life for Korea’s homeless has changed ―if indeed it has ―since the devastation to the labor market caused by the country’s foreign exchange crisis of 1997-98 (commonly referred to as the “IMF crisis”).
The new film focuses on urban poverty, dealing with the question of housing rights and the absence of a system to help the poor find affordable housing.
The heart of the new film is Mr. Park’s attempts to trace the history of people he interviewed seven years ago. He has lost track of many of them; he guesses that some moved to their hometowns, and that some died.
He hopes that is not what happened to a man he met in Seosomun Park ― the director simply calls him “hyeong,” an honorific meaning elder brother ― where the director lived in a tent for five months with several other homeless people. The man he calls “hyeong” was a laid-off chef who became homeless after his wife ran away and he put his two children in an orphanage.
“He was extremely naive and hard-working, like most homeless people,” Mr. Park said. “I think that’s why they are left homeless in the end. They don’t want to rob people of their money. They don’t want to cause trouble or depend on their relatives. Yet they can’t end their own lives, either.”
One man from the first film recently called him from Gangneung, in Gangwon province, saying he’d gotten a job and a new home in the countryside. But such success stories are rare, Mr. Park says, since alcohol quickly saps the will of people living on the streets. Most, he says, think it makes no real difference whether they live outdoors or in a small room that costs 7,000 won ($6.70) a day.
“I want to raise questions of hope in the new film,” Mr. Park said. “Because many homeless people are hopeless. That’s the real problem.
“Their lives might get a little better if they worked harder, but they think their lives have no future,” he said. “And once you give up, life starts to fall apart.”
Indeed, in the first film we see plenty of homeless people driven to despair. A man named Gi-tae has a lunch of sponge cake and a glass of soju. At Chuseok, when most Koreans honor their ancestors with elaborate rituals, a man sobs as he sets his lit cigarette on the ground, then bows to it in honor of his dead parents.
That tableau takes place against the backdrop of a huge crowd at Seoul Station, standing in line to board trains to take them home to their families.
There are glimmers of hope in the film, too, as when a group of men pour cold water on each other’s backs in a park bathroom to cope with the summer heat, and when an elderly homeless man in a restaurant asks a waitress for extra rice so he can bring some to his friends. The director finds a sense of community among these people, which he depicts with a seemingly instinctive optimism.
“The truth is, things haven’t progressed that much since IMF,” he says. “It’s more important to create a system that stops unemployed people from ending up on the streets, rather than helping them recover after they’ve become homeless.”

Getting an accurate picture of the extent of urban homelessness in Korea is an elusive goal. Last month, the Seoul municipal government reported that its official count of the city’s homeless had reached 730 in October, which it said was the highest number since the financial crisis.
Figures supplied by Nosilsa, a homeless advocacy group, might seem to suggest that the real number is higher; according to the group, an average of 300 people die on the streets every year in Korea from liver failure or untreated injuries.
A recent survey by the Seoul government indicates that about 70 percent of the city’s homeless are in their 30s and 40s and have at least a high school diploma. Many are temporary workers who end up on the streets as soon as they are laid off (most temporary blue-collar jobs in Korea offer food and shelter).
So far, there apparently aren’t many homeless women in Korea. Some suggest that many impoverished women, rather than live on the streets, have become prostitutes or taken extremely low-paying jobs.
The overall picture, says Mr. Park, suggests that urban homelessness is mainly a symptom of a lack of jobs for working-class citizens, and of the government’s failure to provide such safety nets as medical insurance and unemployment insurance.
That’s the political side of it. The film works on a very personal level as well, as in scenes of the director socializing with homeless people in a park, where he worked as a volunteer for a food bank.
Mr. Park says he majored in fine arts in college, but became a documentarian because he considered it a form of “media activism.” He says he tried photography, public art and scripted films, but they all seemed “too superficial.”
The issue of urban poverty, he says, has haunted him since his college years in the 1980s, when he was an activist in the pro-democracy movement. “My father was a taxi driver,” he said. “I always thought to myself, ‘Who would come to see my paintings if I have a show in an art gallery? The place closes before half of the population finishes work.’”
He says he doesn’t look back. “If I shoot a film, it leaves me with piles of debt immediately,” he said, laughing sardonically. “But I still do it.”
On a recent Wednesday night, Mr. Park returned to Seoul Station, where he shot much of his film seven years ago. He was filming a memorial ceremony held by a civic group, mourning the homeless people who died in 2004. Photographs of 67 of the dead are displayed.
It was -3 degrees Celsius (27 degrees Fahrenheit), and his hands were red from filming in the cold for several hours. He warmed his hands with his breath.
“The world is becoming a harder place to live,” he said. “It’s getting worse and worse. I am not sure whether there is any hope left for us.”
Then his tone changed. “But there is a sense of achievement in what I do,” he said.

by Park Soo-mee
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