Film Review: ‘Alive’

Writer-director-star Park Jung-bum's second feature is an ambitious, artful but increasingly dirge-like tale of woe.

Park Jung-bum, Lee Seung-yeon, Park Myoung-hoon, Shin Haet-bit, Park Hee-von, Park Young-deok, Lee Seung-yeon.

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.

Film Review: 'Alive'

Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival (Global Visions), May 7, 2015. (Also in Rotterdam, Hong Kong film festivals; 2014 Locarno, Toronto, Rio de Janeiro, Busan, AFI, Singapore film festivals.) Running time: 174 MIN. (Original title: “Sanda”)

Production: (South Korea) A Secondwind Film presentation in association with Sansoo Ventures Inc. and Jeonju International Film Festival of a Secondwind Film production. (International sales: Finecut Co., Seoul.) Produced by Park Jung-bum, Kim Youngjin, Kim Jong-sun. Executive producers, Kim Hyun-woo, Kim Songil.

Crew: Directed, written by Park Jung-bum. Camera (color, widescreen), Kim Jong-sun; editor, Jo Hyunju; music, Park In-young; makeup & hair, Kwon Jieun; sound, Jin Dong-hoon, Kim Hyn-sang; assistant directors, Moon Joon-young, Lee Chan-ho.

With: Park Jung-bum, Lee Seung-yeon, Park Myoung-hoon, Shin Haet-bit, Park Hee-von, Park Young-deok, Lee Seung-yeon.

More Film

  • Tokyo Director-in-Focus-at-Japan-Now

    Nobuhiko Obayashi set as Japanese Director in Focus at Tokyo Film Festival

    Indie director, Nobuhiko Obayashi will be feted as the director in focus at the Japan Now section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will give a world premiere to his “Labyrinth of Cinema.” Supporting his art by shooting commercials, Obayashi is an indie whose dreamy works have influenced numerous other directors in [...]

  • Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Movie

    Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Thriller 'Unhinged' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jimmi Simpson will play a key role in “Unhinged,” Variety has learned. He joins an impressive cast that includes Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius. Solstice Studios is producing the psychological thriller, which is currently filming in New Orleans. “Unhinged” centers on a woman named Rachel (Pistorius), who leans on her horn at the wrong [...]

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

  • Javier Bardem Dune

    Javier Bardem in Talks to Play King Triton in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Javier Bardem is in talks to play King Triton in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. Harry Styles is also in early talks to play Prince Eric. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

  • UglyDolls

    STX Tries to Put Flops Behind It as It Searches for Star Executive, Fresh Capital

    After a series of film flops and an aborted initial public offering, STX Entertainment is battling mounting skepticism that it can survive in an increasingly unforgiving movie business. As it hustles to find $500 million in fresh capital, the company, which operates in the red according to financial disclosures, is simultaneously hoping to attract a [...]

  • Ryan Simpkins

    Ryan Simpkins Joins Fox-Disney's 'Fear Street' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Ryan Simpkins has joined Fox-Disney’s second installment of 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment’s “Fear Street” trilogy, based on the novels by R.L. Stine. Leigh Janiak is helming all three films. Previously announced cast includes Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia [...]

  • MPAA Logo

    Motion Picture Association of America Hires Emily Lenzner as Communications Chief

    The Motion Picture Association of America has appointed veteran public relations executive Emily Lenzner as its executive VP of global communications and public affairs. She will report to Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin and oversee the trade group’s communications team in the U.S. and internationally. Lenzner will start Aug. 1 and be based at the MPAA’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content