In the city of Chittagong, Bangladesh, men of all ages work at stripping old ships for parts, scrap iron, waste oil, and chemicals. They arrive from far away, and work for the equivalent of two bucks a day, a small portion of which they spend on bread, rice, greens and broth in the company cafeteria, and the rest of which they send home to families they can rarely afford to visit. And because they’re breaking apart thousand-pound pieces of metal that splinter unpredictably—as well as dealing with sudden explosions and toxic chemicals—the workers frequently see their colleagues die on the job.
Park Bong-Nam’s Iron Crows is mostly a you-are-there kind of documentary, watching silently as these men haul slop, wield blowtorches, and dodge falling iron. (At one point, an employee explains that they just started wearing hardhats recently.) But Park also takes a closer look at a few of the workers: the jaded middle-aged cutter who’s grateful for his lot in life; the young husband who’s been in the yards for a decade but is just starting to realize what he’s signed up for; and the teenager willing to do anything for a hot meal. Iron Crows probes their wounds and examines their homesickness, but also listens as they sing and crack jokes with their ship-breaking brothers.
It’s this latter point that makes Iron Crows a little richer than the usual “gawk at the horrors of economic exploitation” doc. The movie has no story per se, and there are times when it does seem like Park is hovering, vulture-like, over his subjects’ shoulders, waiting for a disaster. But Iron Crows isn’t devoid of natural human exuberance, nor is it immune to the awesome spectacle of a dangerous job. Park revels in the odd beauty of it all: the hot sparks and molten metal; the splattering mud when two tons of metal falls from a great height; the frothy red blood of a sacrificial goat; the enormity of the ships, dwarfing the men on the muddy beaches below; and the way an unexpected crack sends the workers scrambling, unsure whether they’ll survive whatever happens next.