The title suggests something triumphant, but Park Jung-bum’s second feature, “Alive,” might as well have the prefix “Barely” — its protagonists are scraping by with cruel odds stacked against them, as in his acclaimed 2010 debut, “The Journals of Musam.” Once again, the writer-director-actor is compelling as the chief victim of perpetual setbacks, but this handsome, accomplished film becomes an increasingly dirge-like chronicle of woes as it marches into its third hour — an artistically impressive achievement that perhaps demands more patience than it rewards. Beyond the fest circuit, commercial placements will be spotty.
Two long, wordless opening sequences show two principals in full physical/psychological torment: Jungchul (Park) is struggling to clear debris from a family property that’s been “ruined” (we only learn how much later). Elsewhere, also in the freezing winter cold, his sister Sooyun (Lee Seung-yeon) self-flagellates as punishment for misdeeds we don’t fully grasp for quite some time. Neither of them can catch a break. Jungchul is blamed by fellow workers when the foreman on a construction job he’d signed them onto absconds with their pay. Mentally unstable since their parents’ death, Sooyun is at risk of being fired for her erratic behavior from the soybean-paste factory that shelters her and fatherless daughter, Hana (Shin Haet-bit).
When mother and daughter are threatened with eviction by the business’s hard-nosed owner, Jungchul and his simpleminded friend Myunghoon (Park Myoung-hoon) ease the situation by signing on as cut-rate workers. But even this creates problems, as the two young men prove so industrious that the owner uses their higher productivity as an excuse to cut loose older longtime employees. Meanwhile, Sooyun’s health issues — including simultaneous suicidal thoughts and terrors of death, as well as nymphomania acted out with bus-depot strangers — spiral out of control.
Park’s austere yet engaged treatment maintains credibility through what might otherwise be an excessively melodramatic pileup of scenes involving hysteria, physical fights and other extreme situations. Yet it also makes his film something of a slog, particularly in the last third, when a disaster at the factory makes life even worse for our protagonists, who end up shouldering a blame that isn’t actually theirs. A tiny ray of hope at the end does little to counter the sense that the writer-director has simply overplayed and underdramatized this saga of endless travail, in which the reasonably well-off endlessly exploit the luckless. The screenplay’s decision to keep so many basic explanatory details hidden for so long also undermines full emotional involvement.
Yet there’s much to admire here, with a committed cast topped by the director’s own gruff but noble hero, who endlessly struggles like Sisyphus to push impossible burdens upward — though fate keeps raining debris down on him, quite literally in the case of his family’s landslide tragedy. Kim Jong-sun’s widescreen lensing offers both hand-held, obsessively tracking intimacy and an arresting deployment of not particularly beautiful Gangwon Province landscapes. The spare tenor is furthered by the lack of an original score — only overheard (or in one brutally awkward scene, karaoke-sung) music is utilized. All tech/design contributions are solid.