A maddeningly blunt and syrupy rendering of a piquant socio-economic configuration, Park Bong-Nam’s Iron Crows is ultimately third-world documentary filmmaking at its most exploitatively surface-groping. Park studies, with handheld HD photography, the metal recycling yards of Southern Bangladesh, where most of the country’s iron supply is procured from the remains of retired ships by legions of penurious men driven from their distant villages by famine. We’re offered few concrete details about this occupation’s structure or its financial attractiveness, though through testimony we glean the average age of what are referred to as ship-cutters (the workforce ranges as young as 12 and as old as 50; in one scene, boys of eight or nine, desperate for paying jobs, are turned away due to their youth) and the various aspirations that motivate their back-breaking, de-limbing labor (most men send money to their wives and children, others dream of opening businesses).
This vocational ambiguity manifests itself in unsettling ways as we move through the movie’s first half, essentially a protracted exposé on the recycling center’s harrowingly unsafe conditions. The men gingerly finger and stash with harried jaundice the paper money that’s periodically distributed to them, but the manner in which they haggle for their company-provided meals of rice and vegetables tainted by the ubiquitous crude oil of their trade suggests a credit-based, indentured servitude. We sense that Park’s apparent disinterest in his subjects’ economic complexity and doting on the visceral has rhetorical significance; e.g., does it really matter if these men represent a convolutedly oppressed proletariat when they don’t even have goggles to wear while dismantling hulls with blowtorches? But this attitude also produces a portrait with reductive emotive contexts: We’re shuttled back and forth between fearing for the ship-cutters’ lives as they drag girders and pipes through the clay-heavy Chittagong beaches and pitying their abject poverty as they bemoan their dearth of opportunities and tragic filial estrangement.
Park’s lack of social incisiveness is least apparent in scenarios that need only be witnessed with a modicum of poetry. Much of the running time is devoted to wordless, arrhythmic montages of legs shin-deep in oil, hands grasping ropes and small promontories-turned-footholds, or hunks of metal hurtling toward the ground to disintegrate into scrap. In one scene, we watch a young man just barely escape a crushing by an errant plumbing apparatus; as his co-workers hug him afterward, validating his extant corporeality in spite of the impromptu threat, he stares at the ship he was helping to disassemble, badly shaken. (Park wrecks the grace of this sequence, however, by punching in a slow-motion instant replay of the almost-accident, clearly getting off on the good fortune he had to be pointing his camera in that direction at that particular moment.) We also return periodically to the nests of the titular birds, made of wispy metallic strands, as a half-hearted symbol of perseverance and make-do-with-ism in the face of industrial perversion.
In the third act, Park follows one of the ship-cutters home to his wife and baby, who was born blind due to malnourishment during pregnancy, and we observe 10 minutes of communal weeping; the man views his daughter’s sight as a kind of luxury his meager wages were unable to provide and can’t help but be overwhelmed. While potent material, there’s no call to action to focus any of the intense pity it provokes, and our resulting helplessness suggests an aesthetic as well as political futility. The black-and-white stills shown at the coda atop uproariously plaintive strings are similarly a nonprofit commercial without a donation hotline, communicating nothing but vulgar sorrow. As we retreat from this monochromatic intensity, the suffering of the ship-cutters becomes an impetus for insular first-world reflection, blessing-counting, and detached sympathy. So maybe Bangladesh’s tears aren’t entirely useless after all: They put America’s financial frowny face vaguely into perspective.