“Incessantly grim,” begins Pierce Conran at Twitch, “Park Jung-bum’s Alive is about as challenging a sophomore work as anyone could have dreamt up. And this from a man who debuted with the ferociously bleak The Journals of Musan (2011), a tale of a socially awkward North Korean defector unable to fit into his new surroundings, and whose sole companion, a stray dog, meets a untimely end, leaving his helpless master to fend for himself. Yet, just as that was a devastatingly effective silent wail, this latest work harnesses Park’s boiling anger at the injustices that riddle Korean society to create an imposing and austere call to arms.”
“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,” writes Clarence Tsui in the Hollywood Reporter.
“It could be overselling Park’s work just a bit to claim that there is no one else making movies like him, but trying to articulate their procedures or tie them to extant categories is quite difficult,” writes Michael Sicinski for Cinema Scope. “Jeong-cheol (Park) is a construction worker who is trying to renovate a ramshackle lean-to, when he isn’t involved in backbreaking labor for his family’s survival. The construction job falls apart due to a crooked foreman, so Jeong-cheol ends up working with his mentally unstable sister Su-yeon (Lee Seung-yeon) at a tofu fermenting plant…. Su-yeon’s manic self-abuse makes Bess from Breaking the Waves look like the picture of rationality; Jeong-cheol must look after her, her daughter Hana (Shin Haet-bit) and his dimwitted best friend Myoung-hoon (Park Myoung-hoon), who harbors a not-so-secret crush on Su-yeon…. In terms of its treatment of landscape, spatial articulation, and close attention to working bodies, Alive bears a resemblance to Wang Bing or even the Dardennes.”
“In the hands of a lesser director, all this doom and gloom could feel over-calculated or even laughable,” grants James Lattimer at the House Next Door, “yet Jungbum is thrillingly up to the task. The wall-to-wall despair is leavened by occasional moments of well-placed surrealism, whose bright colors break the otherwise grim palette of blacks, browns, and grays: a high-end television showing different animals on loop, the reddish bloom of a chick embryo growing inside an egg, a trip to a bra shop where no bras seem to come in white. Still very much anchored within the plot, these brief interludes of color are also emblematic of an affluence so far out of the characters’ reach it feels almost otherworldly. Yet this isn’t the only way in which the film sidesteps the formal monotony of a lot of superficially similar social realist tracts.”
Update, 9/14: “Park, in his capacity as writer, is able to execute the almost impossible task of making [his] plot points into organic situations over which the protagonist can exert a force of will,” writes Brian Roan at the Film Stage. “As a director, he shoots and edits the story in a way that draws the broadest possible social context from the narrative while keeping the emotional connections confined to his compassionately drawn characters. As an actor, he projects the kind of wounded strength and determination that comes from a life of having to be the strongest person in the room, making Jeong-cheol stolid without being stoic, driven without being robotic.”