Survival and suffering dominate Park Jung-bum’s tale of human struggles.
“Why do I have nothing? Why can’t I have anything?”
This is one of a few questions by Jung-chul, the soybean paste worker played by Alive’s writer-director-star Park Jung-bum as he reflects on everything he’s been through, and what he has to show for it. Living in a remote Korean village, in a dilapidated shack with his mentally-troubled sister Soon-yeon (Lee Seung-yeon) and her daughter Hana (Shin Haet-bit). Things are … not great, with money problems arising, the winter creeping in, and Soo-yeon’s increasingly erratic behaviour causing him no end of problems. But things can, as they always do, get worse.
Alive asks the question: is human misery imposed by others or by the individual? When the characters in the movie suffer, it’s partially at the hands of events far out of their own control: the harsh winter conditions, a boss who’s looking to save a few bucks and so on. But as hanger-on and perpetual idiot Myung-hoon (Park Myung-hoon) demonstrates, anyone can just pack up and leave (even though he acquired his money through duplicitous methods, he still shows that life in Seoul isn’t completely impossible). Is life going to be any easier elsewhere? Maybe not, and jobs can be hard to come by – but the fact that none of them do anything makes it heartbreaking to watch.
The problem is that the main characters are all wrapped up in their own heads and can’t see the wood for the trees. Soo-yeon sees the remote mountain village as a prison she can’t escape from – a theme that recurs throughout in various forms, most obviously a bird crying out for a father in a literal birdcage – as does Jung-chul when he dreams of living in the Philippines: but none of them will ever manage to leave if they can’t break free of the thing that’s holding them back. For some like Soo-yeon, it’s harder, but Jung-chul has nothing keeping him or his family there. Just take them and get the hell out. Wherever you go can’t be worse than the shithole house you’re in now.
Because of this, none of the characters ever truly get to live. They just sort of exist in a state of perpetual state of almost being, seemingly so near to where they want to be but never achieving it. Jung-chul is always one payday away from fixing the house, buying pianos and taking everyone away but it’ll never happen. Park Jung-bum infuses the film with the idea that the “steps” everyone takes are just temporary measures that do nothing in the long run. Their house – metaphorical or not – is collapsing and a single wooden pole won’t be enough to keep it up.
And throughout all of this, the idea that others must suffer in order for you to be happy. This is the biggest overarching theme of the film, with the story more or less bookended with Jung-chul taking down a former colleague’s front door over stolen wages. The thing is the guy isn’t even home and it’s his kid who suffers because of it. The way this little act is handled at the end brings a bit of hope that the characters have learnt … well, something, but it’s hard to tell. But it’s all they know: whenever a character tries to do something good (such creating an incubator to hatch chickens), it results in yet more suffering.
All of this is wrapped up almost an arse-numbing three hours which sounds awful, but really isn’t. It feels long, sure, but it’s paced perfectly that it never really drags on too long or moves at a breakneck pace to exhaust you. The intention here is to make the audience feel what the characters are going through, without glossing over it. It is one thing to show that, hey, Jung-chul is a manual labourer, but it’s another thing to make the audience feel the monotonous, tiresome nature of it without being monotonous or tiresome in itself. This is largely due to the extremely confident performances, notably from Lee Seung-yeon as Soo-yeon and newcomer Shin Haet-bit as Hana.
Combine that with excellent cinematography, stunningly gorgeous (if visually cold) landscapes and painfully realistic writing, and you spend most of the runtime in a deep sense of dread or discomfort – and that’s exactly the point. Alive doesn’t just show, it makes an audience experience everything first-hand, and never feels shlocky or exploitative. Just real, and with enough development to show that maybe things might not be so bad. And after all, as Jung-chul says, “there is always a way to survive.”
Verdict: For all its doom and gloom, Alive retains just the smallest spark of hope.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: Lots of lame fighting, self-flagellation/10
Sex: One quickie in the bus terminal
Mallards: Are protected?
Parrots: It’s free, but it’s probably dead by now.
Grappling: So much grappling!
Chicken deaths. Three? Ish?
Also known as: 산다 (to live)
Director: Park Jung-bum
Writer: Park Jung-bum
Park Jung-bum – Jung-chul
Lee Seung-yeon – Soo-yeon
Park Myung-hoon – Myung-hoon
Shin Haet-bit – Ha-na
Park Hee-von – Hyun-kyung
Lee Eun-woo – Jin-young