November 23, 2016

Alive: Barely

Bad people do bad things. That's pretty obvious. But good people do bad things, too. And sometimes with the best intentions. Other times, it's simply because need becomes too great to remain unfailingly good. In Park Jung-bum's epic Alive (which runs about three hours), we see this over and over again — Jeong-cheol (played with hyperrealism by Park himself) — fights and connives to scrape together a living for himself, his mentally ill sister Soo-yeon (Lee Seung-yeon) and her young daughter Ha-na (Shin Haet-bit) with no resources to draw on outside of his wits. He'll do construction, factory work, anything he can to keep his little family unit together. That means he's not above selling out the elders who have taught him how to process soybean paste or unhinging the front door of an orphaned boy's home to make a point. You may question his logic now and then but you're also excruciatingly aware that his thinking is colored by having to sleep in a tent in an unheated house and to steal a large radish from a local store in order to survive. Bulgogi and scallion pancakes are not on his menu.

To call Alive gritty would be an understatement. More like artfully soiled or ingeniously smudged or willfully covered in crap. Poverty is one hell of a great oppressor and any act of tenderness — the desperate plea for charity that Myeong-hoon (Park Myoung-hoon makes to his brother; the human shield assumed by ex-girlfriend Jin-yeong (Lee Eun-woo) when some drunkenly indignant customers go on the attack — registers as an unexpected gift of the highest rank, when it's all you can do to get by. For it is love and kindness that make humanity defensible as a species. Without it, you almost wish humankind would simply stop propagating and leave the now-damaged planet to the other species and plants which have some how made it this far despite our rapaciousness, despite our meanness, despite our disregard. And Alive documents that too. It's not a pretty picture. But it's a necessary one. Writer-actor-director-cinematographer-producer Park is definitely a multitalented one to watch.

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