'Alive' ('San-da'): Locarno Review

Alive Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno

Alive Still - H 2014

Korean actor-helmer delivers a tour de force 

Park Jung-bum's three-hour drama revolves around a broke and broken laborer's struggle to survive

Having secured awards and acclaim in 2011 with his directorial debut Journals of Musan, Park Jung-bum has returned with his sophomore effort — and there's no sign of second-movie syndrome. A powerful chronicle of a simple laborer's epic scrape for survival, Alive is taut, riveting and visually striking throughout its mammoth three-hour runtime, an achievement made even more impressive by the Korean helmer's nuanced performance as the protagonist himself.

In a way, the Sisyphian struggle shaping the narrative in Alive reflects the production process of the film itself: as Park (the actor) plays a man whose mission to convert a rubble-strewn husk of a house into a proper family home, Park (the director) has spent the past few months toiling nearly non-stop in sculpting his opus. An "unfinished" (and even longer) version of the film was presented in May as one of the three selections making up the Jeonju International Film Festival's annual Digital Project, and the cut making its "official" world premiere at Locarno was not definitive either; producers said the version to be unveiled at Toronto will feature minute differences in color and editing.

It will certainly be interesting to see what Park's tweaks for his North American premiere are, given how his offering for Locarno — where he's in the run for the Golden Leopard — is already a fully formed, flab-stripped affair. What makes Alive such an impressive piece is the simplicity of it all. While Journals could fall back on its topicality (its lead character being a North Korean defector), idiosyncratic protagonist and cuddly accessory (a white dog), Alive is austere: Jung-chul (played by Park) is a non-descript, no-nonsense small-town toiler who seemingly wants nothing beyond a more secure future for his family.

For all his dreams of better days ahead, Jung-chul is condemned to a life handling the detritus of a putrefied past. He lives out of a tent set up inside the ruined edifice he's trying to rebuild; having lost his job at a construction site, he lands a job making the Korean delicacy of fermented soybean slabs.

As if to make his life more complicated, this realist is surrounded by dreamers. His obtuse friend Myung-hoon (Park Myung-hoon) revels in making egg incubators and longs to move to the Philippines; his sister Soo-yun (Lee Seung-yeon), in a stupor after the death of her parents, has sex with strangers at the local coach station and tries to become an actress; her neglected daughter Ha-na (a fantastically nuanced debut from Shin Haet-bit) also harbors a wish to play the piano. Even the co-worker Jung-chul adores, Jin-young, is thinking of leaving, quitting her job as a forklift operator to  drive long-distance coaches to the bright lights of Seoul.

Somehow, the only other pragmatist around is on the other side of the class barrier. The daughter of Jung-chul's beancurd-maker employer (played by the director-star's real-life father Park Young-duk),  Hyun-kyung (Kim Hee-von) embodies Jung-chul's pursuit of a home and settled family life — in her case, through marriage into an even richer clan. Her predicaments are again crystallized around her efforts to finish the decoration of her future apartment, as her exasperation grows when her future mother-in-law derides the "wrong kind of tap" at the kitchen and demands the biggest, highest-definition and most expensive TV.

The film's technical aspects help immensely in providing the stage for these characters to thrive. Given the story's emphasis on home as the basis of life, the film boasts a production design of interiors which provide a telling yet subtle backdrop to all the respective characters' personalities. Jo Hyun-ju's editing and Park In-young's music are equallly unshowy, serving as near-invisible supplements in advocating the director's simple yet solid storytelling.

True to its title, Alive is gritty in its aesthetics and darkly existential in its world view. Jung-chul keeps on building his house even when the elements push back his progress every day; Soo-yun takes to self-mutilation (a nail through the palm, no less) in a vain attempt to find solace or even an epiphany; Ha-na, for all her initial starry-eyed hopes for the future, eventually refuses to pray anymore because "God is dead".

But the film quietly and gently shifts gear to offer some hope for Jung-chul and Ha-na — and it's at this juncture that Park displays his versatility with two extremely poetic and moving shots that stand in deep contrast to the grime and grit that came before. It's an appropriate finale for what could easily be Park's tour de force as both director and actor: a meditation on endurance in its most fundamental form.

Venue: Festival del Film Locarno (International Competition)

Production companies: Secondwind Film in a production presented in association with Sansoo Ventures Inc. and Jeonju International Film Festival

Cast: Park Jung-bum, Lee Seung-yeon, Park Myung-hoon, Shin Haet-bit

Director: Park Jung-bum

Screenwriter: Park Jung-bum

Producer: Jay Jeong with Jang Byung-won, Lee Sang-yong

Executive producer: Kim Young-jin

Director of photography: Kim Jong-sun

Editor: Jo Hyun-ju

Music: Park In-young

International Sales: Finecut

In Korean

No rating; 179 minutes