“There’s no safe place in this world” intones a pure hearted soul partway through Park Jung-bum’s relentlessly bleak exploration of the human condition, Alive (산다, Sanda). When your existence is defined by impossibility, it may be hard to see the light but to stop looking for it altogether doesn’t bear thinking about. A fierce condemnation of the hypocrisies of a capitalistic society, Alive wants to ask if simply breathing is enough when every breath is unending pain and the faint hope of a better life a cruel irony in an otherwise desperate existence.
Labourer Jung-chul (Park Jung-bum) lives in the ruins of his former family home destroyed in a landslide which also killed his parents. He is responsible both for his sister, Soo-yun (Lee Seung-yeon), who has extreme mental health issues, and her young daughter Hana (Shin Haet-bit). When the construction job ends for the winter, Jung-chul turns a crisis into an opportunity by volunteering to fill-in at the soy bean paste factory owned by the man for whom Soo-yun has been working as a cook to stop him firing her after she had an episode and did not show up for work. Things are going well, but the impending marriage of his haughty daughter to a middle-class salaryman is beginning to weigh on the factory owner’s mind. Worrying about the dowry, he summarily fires a number of longterm employees. Jung-chul, ever the opportunist, seizes the chance to get his construction site buddies over to the factory but his constant attempts to profit from the misfortune of others are destined to end only in disaster.
Trapped in the snowbound mountains, Jung-chul has little realistic chance of escape. His life is hard and marked only by physical exertion while stretched to emotional breaking point thanks to the complicated situation surrounding his sister. Despite himself, Jung-chul resents Soo-yun who has retreated into a near catatonic state in order to escape the misery of her life. She is often to be found at the local bus terminal where she picks up strangers and then returns to her ruined village for acts of self harm in an attempt to embrace vitality through suffering. Jung-chul is suffering too and he can’t forgive his sister for her attempts at mental absence, condemning her for her “shamelessness” rather than attempting to deal with her declining mental health and the physical harm in which it places her.
Jung-chul sees himself as the “pillar” of the family, that without him his sister and niece will be left out in the cold with nothing to sustain them. Yet his desire to protect his own cannot entirely explain his increasing dog eat dog mentality or his willingness to engage in the system of circular exploitations which defines the world in which he lives. “It obeys me better when it’s kept hungry” a woman snaps at Hana when she attempts to feed a performing parrot, somehow encapsulating the insidious logic of rampant capitalism. Jung-chul thinks he can’t afford to think about the employees his boss fired because someone is always going to lose out and it’s enough to make sure it isn’t him, but he doesn’t see that his refusal to stand up for others leaves him vulnerable and alone.
The world of the factory boss is an oddly feudal one in which his major preoccupation is his paternal obligation to provide a dowry for his daughter with the implication that the wedding may not take place at all if he cannot fulfil it. The boss’ daughter, having spent time in the US, objects to her father’s callous treatment of his employees who remain with absolutely no workplace protections and are not even offered severance pay despite being axed deep in the harshness of winter. Nevertheless, when her wedding is threatened she reverts to type. Her dad cut corners and made a mistake, but she’s going to find a scapegoat and cover it up, justifying her decision with the rationale that she’s “protecting” the workers. Obeying feudal obligations, the fired employees all turn up to her meeting at which she tearfully talks about a way to save the factory despite the fact that the factory has just betrayed them and trampled all over a lifetime’s unquestioning loyalty.
Meanwhile, Jung-chul’s simpleminded friend Myung-hoon (Park Myung-hoon) dreams of a new life in the Philippines where the people are kind and you never have to worry about the cold. Unlike Jung-chul, Myung-hoon can’t bring himself to betray his sense of justice even if he eventually succumbs to a kind of poetic recompense in order to save his own dream if only by stopping Jung-chul from ruining himself completely. Nevertheless, as bleak as this world is, it is not devoid of hope as Jung-chul eventually realises through the innocent sound of a child practicing piano. Shining a light for his sister, he finally remembers to close the door on an act of calculated pettiness, accepting that his responsibility extends further than his household and that only by opposing the injustice done to others can he hope to change his hopeless world and begin to feel alive once again.
Alive was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.
Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)