TIFF Review: Alive (산다)

Image courtesy of TIFF
Image courtesy of TIFF

Alive (산다), director Park Jeong Beom (박정범)’s second film which he directed, wrote and starred in, was one of the films in the City to City program at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).


Alive is the tale of Jeong Cheol, a labourer who is desperately struggling to support himself and his family in a small town in Korea. Not only does he have to look after himself and try to repair the falling down house that he’s oddly attached to but he is also looking out for his mentally ill sister, Su Yeon, and his niece Ha Na. Su Yeon is punishing herself and want to escape the poverty and small town. Ha Na is older than her years from looking after her mother but wants to be a child and play the piano. And then there’s Jeong-Cheol’s best friend who has a crush on Su Yeon, despite her behaviour. To make matters worse, a co-worker ran off with everyone’s pay and Jeong Cheol is being blamed.

Despite all that, and the poverty they can’t escape, Jeong Cheol just wants a normal life – to rebuild his house, settle down with his girlfriend and have his family live comfortably with him. Perhaps a job at the bean curd factory his sister works at will provide the solution for everyone.

Image courtesy of TIFF
Image courtesy of TIFF

My Thoughts

Even after reading the synopsis, this film wasn’t what I was expecting. It was a lot darker, no, that’s not the right word, it was a lot bleaker and more austere than I was expecting. Which shouldn’t be surprising as the director’s, first film, Journals of Musan (무산일기) was also quite bleak.

Right from the start, Alive was powerful, vaguely disturbing and a film that makes the audience think. For example, the film starts with a woman, whom we later find out is the main character’s sister, stripping her top off and then whipping herself with a few switches. Which, of course leads to a whole slew of questions, especially as we haven’t seen anything else in the film yet. What is she punishing herself for? Or is she mentally unstable? Is it a religious thing? As the film progresses I start to wonder if she is punishing herself because she was responsible somehow for her parents’ death. This was never stated – nor does the audience ever find out how their parents died – but perhaps it would explain some of her behaviour. However, her promiscuity – which can sometimes manifest as a form of punishment – appeared to have been going on prior to their death.

The film is heavily character-driven and we get to know quite a bit of their lives and what makes them tick. While most of the central characters are poor, we also are shown the opposite side of the spectrum in the doenjang factory owner and the family his daughter is marrying into. I’m sorry but the cost of the TV they were discussing was a ridiculous counterpoint to the falling down house that Jeong Cheol was barely surviving in. This was the viewers first indication of the personality and character of the doenjang factory owner’s daughter. But, even with the avarice she displayed, I couldn’t believe that she would try to find a scapegoat for her father’s mistake. And while it wasn’t just his mistake, if the conditions needed to be that exact, why did no one check on the doenjang bricks? Shouldn’t they have been monitored, at least a little, especially with new employees?

The main character, Jeoug Cheol played by Park Jeong Beom, was interesting in that he’s gruff and abrupt but not uncaring for the most part. In fact, he cared deeply about his family – especially his niece – but he’s obviously at his wit’s end about how to provide for them. While I can’t say that I liked the character, it’s difficult not to admire him for what he’s doing for his family and what he has obviously sacrificed.

In fact, one of the things that struck me the most, and in fact, stayed with me, was the fact that there was something a little off or something wrong with all of the characters. Even the young girl, Ha Na played by Shin Haet Bit (신햇빛),who seemed like a normal kid for most of the film goes a little off the bend at the end. First by walking into a friend’s house and just letting one of her friend’s mom’s birds go. And then by stealing from the collection box at her church – after it was made clear that she regularly goes to church. It seemed very out of character.

But all of the characters did things that were out of character – except the sister, Su Yeon played by Lee Seung Yeon (이승연), who seemed consistently unstable and unreliable throughout the film. She should definitely be getting some of that help that Myoung Hooon played by Park Myoung Hoon (박명훈), talked about getting her (but didn’t).

One completely random thought I had during the film was that I thought it was interesting how the Philippines was thought to be paradise on Earth by the blue-collar workers of the small town. Was it because they were less educated, or simply because there is no winter/snow there?

Final Thoughts

Alive is a three-hour odyssey of a man who wants a simple yet secure life for his family and yet, the life he has is falling apart. Every time he manages to take a step forward, he’s knocked back two. Something that appears to be mirrored in the rundown shell of a house he is bent on restoring. While I left the theatre feeling depressed that even the vague sense of hope at the end of the film did nothing to dispel, it was nonetheless a powerful film whose story has stuck with me and made me think.

Have you seen Alive by Park Jeong Beom? What did you think of it?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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