Toronto 2014 Review: Epic And Austere, ALIVE Depicts Dark Days For Korean Laborers
Incessantly grim and pushing the three-hour mark, indie helmer Park Jung-bum's Alive is about as challenging a sophomore work as anyone could have dreamt up. And this from a man who debuted with the ferociously bleak The Journals of Musan (2011), a tale of a socially awkward North Korean defector unable to fit into his new surroundings, and whose sole companion, a stray dog, meets a untimely end, leaving his helpless master to fend for himself. Yet, just as that was a devastatingly effective silent wail, this latest work harnesses Park's boiling anger at the injustices that riddle Korean society to create an imposing and austere call to arms.
Jeongcheol, a construction worker in Korea's mountainous Gangwon province, tries to provide for his mentally ill sister and young niece, all the while dealing with a modest family abode that is literally falling apart. He begins working at a soybean paste farm but quickly falls out of favor with his much older colleagues, who can't hope to match his youthful and dexterous hands yet many of whom have worked on the plantation for nigh on a decade. At the same time, the farm owner finds himself under a heavy financial burden as his daughter's nuptials approach. He tries to push his workforce harder, but the bitter winter is beginning to take its toll.
Once again, Park puts himself front and center by playing the lead part, in addition to his roles as writer and director. However, while The Journals of Musan's Seung-chul was a passive character whose mere presence drew out the prejudices and systematic imbalance of the new society he found himself in, Jeongcheol's actions seem to mirror those of Park as director: he's getting at something, but he's not sure if he can quite put his finger on it, let alone change it.
Dank, dour, depressing - these words quickly come to mind when watching Alive, yet Park's descent into abject desolation is undeniably hypnotic, not to mention artistic. That's not to say it'll win everyone over (it's bound to infuriate or bore many) but the abasement of the film never feels forced, as is it arrived at naturally, by dint of the seeping ooze of a filmmaker's potent rage.
Much like his focus on a North Korean defector's harsh life prompted an examination of the lower rungs of South Korea's social ladder in his previous work, Park once again draws our attention to a little seen sector of the country in Alive. The foggy mountaintops of Gangwon province are both literally and figuratively far removed from the affluence of Seoul's Gangnam district, which serves as a poster image for the sophistication of Korea in the modern age. Park further illustrates the wideness of Korea's income gap through the traditional financial obligations of parents owing to the expensive marriages of their children.
The soybean paste farm owner's daughter is marrying into a rich family and though he is not expected to cover all of the wedding costs, he is asked to get the young couple a nice television as a wedding gift. Yet it turns out that this isn't just any ordinary television, it must be the top of the line Samsung model, which carries a ludicrous price tag of $38,000. Merely a status symbol, indicating wealth and prestige, the TV set is all the more garish for equaling the combined yearly salary of at least two workers of the man's enterprise. His response, rather than to compromise, is to push his ageing and poor workforce to the brink - cutting corners and taking unnecessary risks to preserve the promise of a fruitful union for his daughter.
Though extreme, this piquant social study is not as one-sided as it might sound. The farm owner is a layered character, who is capable of drawing out our sympathies. This strand is only one of many in the film, and each element woven into this epic of austerity is given full freedom to grow. Combine with boast terrific performances, Alive becomes a dense work with much to say. While the running time is quite long by Korean standards, Park's film knows how much space his various stories need to breath and winds up using its three hours wisely, feeling far less bloated than much of the output of his contemporaries.
Park is once again a revelation in the main role, full of fiery passion fastened under a rigid exterior as he carries himself around in an aggressive shuffling gait. Jeongcheol's eyes bear a constant hint of a plea for help and offer a clue to his hopeless confusion, not matter how hard he tries to lead himself and others out of harm's way. The rest of the cast does equally fine work, with Park Yonug-duk as the farm owner and Park Myeong-hoon as Jeongcheol's friend and his sister's potential suitor earning particular plaudits in what is overall a formidable troupe.
Difficult and dense, dark and despondent, Alive is a tough watch and its byzantine themes and plot strands can make it hard to latch onto all that it is trying to say. Yet there is something magnetic about Park's opus, and some may well go back for seconds to parse all that the film has to offer.