WTF ASIA 220: Alive (2014)

No, this is not the zombie movie, though you may sometimes mistake the main character for the walking dead.

 

Available in Canadathe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Also on Youtube and AsianCrush. The commonality of this title makes it a little difficult to search for. Approximately 166 minutes.




 

 

 



A man chops wood in the snow. I remember snow. After some trouble, he manages to drag the entirety of a small tree onto his truck. Then he takes a sledgehammer to a big rock and rolls it down the hill.

Inside…somewhere, he uses the wood to start a fire as he…I guess does some renovation.

A woman wanders around the dead trees by the highway before walking back to her house. Inside, she…um…takes off her shirt and takes a branch from one of the trees by the window. Then…uh…she starts hitting herself in the back with it. Eek. Good thing that it is too dark to see the marks.

Oh, hey. It is the guy who was chopping wood. He is in his truck with a friend. The friend, Myunghoon, asks Jungchul the woodchopper to close the window. Yeah, why was the window open in the winter? Ah, probably because Jungchul could not move the window properly without pushing it with his hand. Myunghoon mentions having gotten a call from someone named Yongwuk yesterday. Jungchul asks where he is. Myunghoon doesn’t know, but says that Yongwuk is scared of Jungchul. Jungchul asks why he called and why Myunghoon didn’t ask where he was. He starts getting annoyed, saying that Myunghoon’s tendency to ramble makes people look down on him. Myunghoon says that he is the same as he has been and Jungchul knows that.

The two men are at a construction site when Myunghoon kind of out of nowhere starts talking about the Philippines, how is aunt is from there, that people there are all nice because it is so warm. Yeah, I am not so sure about that. He also mentions sleeping on the street as if it is a good thing. In any case, he expresses a desire to live there. Jungchul can come, as well as his sister Sooyun. Jungchul is not paying attention at all until Myunghoon looks down and says that other workers are loading something onto his truck.

Jungchul and Myunghoon go down to the truck to find out what the others are doing. One guy says that they are selling construction material, since they have not gotten paid for their work. Jungchul does not want them using his truck for this, but they want to get this loaded and gone before the supervisor comes. Of course, it is at that moment that the supervisor comes and accuse them of stealing. They loaders tell him that they are doing this because they have not gotten paid. The supervisor claims that he had given the full payment to Yongwuk. The loaders claim that they have not seen any of that money, so they try to continue loading. And a fight breaks out.

The police arrive and everyone has to demand to know what happened. Was Jungchul involved? He claims that he was a victim, noting his bruise. Myunghoon claims that he dragged Jungchul out of the scrum to save him from getting beaten for trying to stop the fight. The loader still demands payment, but the supervisor shows him the account book, insisting that he had given the money to Yongwuk.

Jinyoung, Jungchul’s girlfriend, pulls him out of the meeting and scolds him for fighting. Again, he claims that he was trying to stop it. Jinyoung is not having that. She smacks him, calls him an idiot, and tells him that their plans for going to Philippines will be for nothing if they don’t get paid. Oh, so they were serious about the Philippines? Anyways, Jungchul insists that he will get paid and be able to fix the house. She kicks him in the leg and…drives off in a forklift.

Jungchul accompanies the other construction workers to Yongwuk’s house. He is not there, only his son Minsoo. Even his wife ran away, also abandoning the boy. The guys manage to get in through the window and start threatening the kid. He says that his father is in Seoul, but that is not a satisfactory answer. Myunghoon tries to get them to stop bullying the boy, and, I guess that they lose interest at that time. Jungchul asks Minsoo if his parents have called him, but he says nothing.

With Yongwuk in the wind and his family of no help, suspicion falls upon Jungchul, who had introduced him to the other workers. Did Jungchul get paid? Myunghoon denies it. But the others need to channel their anger somewhere, and Jungchul is now their target. They demand that he pay them what they are owed and get it from Yongwuk. In response he…removes the front door from the house. He tells Minsoo that his father can put the door back when he returns with the money. Over Myunghoon’s protestations, Jungchul takes the door and loads it onto his truck.

Jeez.

And we are back to the woman who had hit herself with a tree branch. She is Jungchul’s sister, Sooyun. At an audition for a play, she tells a story of being surrounded by thousands of frogs after losing her home, and being so scared that she stomped on them to death. The director is impressed, but does not know if she was reciting lines from a play or telling her own story. He asks her to express the story with action. So, she looks at the stagefloor and stomps until she crumbles into near-fetal position and starts screaming.

Jungchul is eating an egg at…the remains of a house, when his niece Hana arrives. He runs over to her and asks why she is here. It is such a cold evening and she musts have walked. She starts to talk about her mother, but cannot get the words out. Regardless, that seems to be all the explanation necessary.

Jungchul drives over to…a bus terminal, and goes to get Sooyun. She has been sitting outside, supposedly having waited for him to pick her up for hours, though he seems to have had no idea. Was he supposed to pick her up? Whatever happened, she was supposed to cook for her coworkers, so they didn’t eat. She repeats her complaints about Jungchul being late when they get back to the truck and he starts driving. He does not outright contradict her, but he just says that he is very tired. And that this is hardly the first time that this has happened. Wait, so has she just gone to the bus stop without telling him? In any case, Sooyun starts to buckle her seat belt, changes her mind, opens the door, and falls out of the truck. Jungchul stops, goes over to pick her up, and carries her back to the truck. It seems like she hurt her leg, but nothing serious. Sooyun begs him not to hate her.

Jungchul and Myunghoon are cutting logs and putting them on the truck. They take a break when they get tired…or when the chainsaw breaks. Whatever. Eventually, they load up what they can.

Jungchul and Myunghoon go to see Sooyun’s boss, who owns a soybean paste factory. Jungchul apologizes for Sooyun not being there yesterday, saying that she was sick. He begs him to reconsider evict her and Hana, saying that they would have nowhere to go. The boss says that the soybean lumps can go bad if not fermented before the snow melts. And yesterday was not the first time that Sooyun had been absent. So, he refuses to relent. Jungchul points out the firewood that he and Myunghoon have brought. He says that the two of them could work at the factory as well, starting today. He can keep a better eye on his sister if he does. The boss asks if he can butcher a chicken. Erm… I don’t know what that has to do with making soybean paste, but Jungchul says yes.

So, the two men are on the line. And we see how the soybeans get turned into paste and then shaped into blocks. Meanwhile, his new co-workers are discussing…some guy who died of cyanide poisoning, which may or may not have been an accident.

It is lunch time, and the workers all crowd around a table. Jungchul sits down, but Sooyun remains standing. I think that she is the one who cooked and is serving the others. One of her coworkers asks Sooyun where she was yesterday, as they lost overtime because of her absence. Did she go somewhere nice? A stageplay? The bus terminal again? The workers laugh at that and another tells her to stop worrying her brother by going to the terminal, as there have been bad rumors circulating about her going there. Jungchul has been silent this entire time, but slams the table. They shut up for a moment before another worker says that there is nothing wrong with going to the terminal. Change of subject.

Hana goes running down a sidewalkless road to a…bird store? While waiting for her friend, she starts feeding one of the birds who constantly says daddy. Nice reminder that Hana’s father is out of the picture. Her friend arrives, as well as her friend’s angry mother, whom I guess runs this place. Hana’s friend tries to hide behind her, despite being a good head taller. The mother also tells Hana to stop feeding the bird, as it has a show tonight. Hana asks whether it would make more sense to feed the bird more instead, but the woman says that it obeys her better when kept hungry. Nice metaphor there. Hana sneaks the bird as much food as she can before they all leave for school.

Hana is doing piano lessons, but her teacher stops her because her hands are dirty. Because of feeding the bird? She tells Hana that she needs a clean mind and clean hands to play piano. Yeah, I don’t know how clean Hana’s mind can be with her family situation right now. But Hana goes to wash her hands and the teacher has another student come to the piano. Then Hana waits by the window as other kids goof around outside.

A rich woman is lecturing an employee about ordering the wrong faucet. She says that her life is already full of stress without her kitchen faucet making noise and bubbles. She asks to have it replaced by tomorrow. The woman next to her looks at her nervously.

Okay, so the young woman is, Hyunkyung, the daughter of the factory boss. And the older woman is the mother of her fiancé. The mother-in-law to be tells the father that she chose a house for the new couple that had the most trees, as a house too close to the street exposes residents to an unhealthy amount of traffic pollution. The father is grateful for the concern, but asks how he should prepare the dowry as a single father. She says not to worry, as she and Hyunkyung have already ordered furniture and appliances. Still, as her father, he says that he still wants to buy something. Why? To not look like a chump? The mother-in-law thinks…maybe a nice quality Korean-made TV.

Hyunkyung and her father go looking at TVs and the salesperson points them to an 85-incher. He goes on and on about visual quality, which is a little ironic given that the visual quality of this movie is rather low. 38,000 USD? Wow. Well, 85 inches. Hyunkyung’s father is…a little reluctant, but she likes it. And he is the one who insisted on this anyways.

Oh my god, Jungchul is killing a bird. Fuck fuck fuck. I am not showing it, but it is highly unlikely that that is a special effect or a visual effect. And on the kitchen floor?? Anyways, Jungchul tells Myunghoon to get Sooyun so that she can start cooking.

Sooyun is…somewhere, picking up a couple of eggs and carrying them in her jacket. I guess that those belonged to the chicken whom Jungchul just killed. Myunghoon tells her that his brother had taught him how to hatch chicken eggs. He takes the eggs and walks off. Did he…forget to tell her to go to the kitchen?

Oh boy, rich people singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” for karaoke. Bah. I guess that that is Hyunkyung and her fiancé. Meanwhile, Sooyun is serving dinner to the boss, who is just sitting at the table enjoying the song. Hyunkyung pushes Sooyun into taking part. I guess that they had been friends in college or something? She says that Sooyun can sing her favorite song from back then, which is also about wind. After a while, Hyunkyung goes to sit down, so it is just Sooyun singing nervously. But Myunghoon seems moved. She notices him and puts the microphone in his hand. They eventually turn to the screen and he starts singing along.

Hana emerges from the kitchen (she is working too?) and tries to pull her mother away from Myunghoon. Sooyun doesn’t want to leave, so Hana turns off the karaoke machine. Hyunkyung asks whether Hana dislikes mommy singing, but Hana threatens to leave if Sooyun does not come with her. Sooyun tells her to just go to bed. So, Hana…walks out of the house. To…her bed?

Jungchul finds Hana packing stuff. Dang, she was serious. She asks him to take her to Gangneung, which I guess is the nearest real city. He says that he cannot do that now and tries to stop her from walking away. She asks him why he never keeps his promise. He writes…something down on a piece of paper, gives it to Hana, and tells her that they will go together later. In the meantime, he reminds her that she has piano lessons, and cannot leave like this, especially as they have no money. Hana asks why they never have money. Jungchul insists that he will get paid soon and she will get a piano. He manages to convince her to let go of the bag, and he puts it away.

Jeez, is he trying to cut down all of the trees?

Myunghoon has set up a hatching thingamee for the eggs and is showing it to Sooyun. And, look, you can see the chick inside the egg, isn’t that cute? Sooyun seems stunned that they can become alive. Myunghoon says sure, as long as they keep it at 35 degrees for the next three weeks or so. They should probably open the window a bit to keep it from going over too much. Sooyun asks if it is safe here. Myunghoon replies that there is no safe place in the world. It is up to them to protect the eggs.

Uh…I am not an expert on soybean paste, but this does not look good. This not because Myunghoon opened the window, is it?

Payday, finally. Or pay evening. The boss hands everyone their money, but tells two of the older folks, Um and Choi, that they can leave. Jungchul and Myunghoon have been making 10 or 11 blocks for every 4 or 5 those two. Jeez. One of them had been working for him for ten years and that’s it. Gone. The boss claims that their slowness threatens fermenting time, which would force the factory to close down. Then everyone would get fired because of those two. They promise to work harder, for less pay, but nope. And with that, the boss leaves.

Back at home, Hyunkyung tells her father that it was not right to fire those two like that, but he replies that the wedding is expensive, as is the dowry. He does not mention that he had insisted on the dowry as a point of pride, but whatever. After some back and forth, Hyunkyung sets off to leave when Jungchul arrives. He asks to talk with the boss, but the boss tells him to wait until tomorrow, after he has returned from Seoul. Jungchul insists that it is urgent, so the boss relents and lets him in. Jungchul starts talking about his…friends. The friends who accused him of stealing their money?

Jungchul is at a restaurant with Myunghoon, Jinyoung, and the…friends. He tells them about the soybean paste factory. He says that two workers had been fired for being slow and the rest are pretty slow as well. He can get them work, but all three of them will have to come aboard. The three are broke and desperate so they agree. They toast the arrangement, but Jungchul tells them not to drink too much, since they start early morning.

Jinyoung seems impressed that her boyfriend is actually using his brain for once. Jungchul then takes out a sketch of his plans for the house for them, Sooyun, and Hana. Jinyoung asks why invite her to live with him. He sheepishly replies because they slept together. Jinyoung finds this hilarious. Jungchul finds it less than that, so he gets up to go to the bathroom…which requires him to go outside?  

Myunghoon follows him outside. He asks how all of those guys can work if the boss had fired only two people. Jungchul tells him that he had already made arrangements with the boss. They need only meet the deadline and they can do this job every winter. There is always a way to survive. Well…maybe for them; not necessarily those elderly workers who are about to get fired. Jungchul walks a little further towards the bathroom (Myunghoon has to tell him that his shoelace is untied) and then says that they can go to the Philippines in the spring.












This is a difficult film to watch. First off, it is nearly 3 hours long and you can feel the slowness. The subject matter is gloomy. The city looks drab. The forest looks like it is dying. The characters are not really people to root for. The acting is…not exactly subdued, but not particularly big. The movie looks like it was made in 1990 as opposed to 2014. There is nothing glamorous about it. But, if you can settle in and commit, you might find it worth your while. 

This is the second feature film by Park Jung-bum, who also stars as Jungchul. Apparently, he had grown up in the area being filmed. Actually, his parents were the owners of that soybean paste factory and he cast his own father as the factory owner. Hopefully, his father was a more benign boss than the person whom he portrays in this movie. But it does suggest that the soybean process was treated authentically.

That need for authenticity is the main reason for all of the long takes. Scenes show not just plot, but the moments before it and the fallout. Park wanted the characters to be consistent through the scenes, as opposed to the “best” performances getting cherry picked from different takes.

According to Park, the main catalyst of inspiration for the film came from the suicide of a friend. Park was haunted by the notion that he did not do enough to help his friend. Struggling with panic disorder, he had trouble even helping himself. He thought about hope and what was necessary to stay alive. And, I guess that this is what came out of that. While this is not even pseudo-autobiographical, it is intensely personal. If nothing else, that is pretty apparent.

Park’s decision to have himself as the lead may have been partly due to vanity. As he has claimed, though, he wanted to be part of the movie itself, as opposed to just a puppetmaster. This was never going to be a blockbuster, so he did not feel the need to cast a superstar in the lead, so why not himself? Additionally, since a lot of the violence is real (??), he did not want to subject someone else to that if he could help it. Of course, the actors who play Sooyun and Myunghoon also get subjected to violence. Yes, even the flagellation scene is real. Park did it to himself as well, not to show the actor who played Sooyun that it was okay, but to show her how much it would hurt.

On that, note, I will talk a bit about Jungchul and Sooyun for a bit.

Jungchul is obsessed with repairing the house, despite how destroyed it is. I cannot say exactly whether it would be cheaper to repair it over time rather than just move, but neither option seems all that feasible given what little money he makes. The point, of course, is not which is the more practical option. The house represents his family. Of course, his family is falling apart. His parents died in the landslide that destroyed the house. He had to bury them with his own hands. No amount of renovation will bring them back. But here he is, chopping wood, breaking rocks, and trying to keep a literal pillar from falling. He must be the man who provides for the women in his life.

Sooyun, who may have been troubled even before the catastrophe, suffers from severe breakdowns. There is backstory that we only kind of see, but it is implied that Sooyun had a past before the traumatic incident that killed her parents and destroyed the house three years earlier. Was it her fault? Hardly, it was a landslide. Does she blame herself? Is that why she whips herself? Unclear. It certainly does not help her achieve redemption, as she continues to create trouble, even if it is mostly due to her psychological damage. She may whip herself as punishment for her behavior and maybe sees it as an attempt to expel whatever curse makes her suffer through the episodes. However, it does not help her terrible reputation or the shame and embarrassment that she brings upon the family. Myunghoon, bless his soul, sees only the good in her, but Jungchul and Hana have limits to their sympathies. Jungchul says that his sister is not a good woman. It was probably not great to say that in front of Hana, but Hana probably believes it too to an extent. But the level of her goodness does not change the fact that she needs real help that she is not receiving..

Jungchul may refute Myunghoon’s claim that he does not realize that she is sick. But, instead of treating her with sympathy and getting her the help that she really needs, he resents her outbursts. He sees her psychological problems as a burden to him and a mental escape valve from which she can cause all sorts of chaos without taking responsibility. And it is up to him, the dutiful one, to clean up her mess. We don’t see her taking care of her daughter at all, instead being an embarrassment to Hana. With the actual father not around, Jungchul has to be her parent, and make sure that she can still take part in the one luxury that they have: piano lessons. As for him, he has no luxury of lashing out, indulging in his own trauma, and going crazy. At the same time, one could argue that his whole obsession on rebuilding the house is hinged on a bit of madness.

The world in which Jungchul lives is unfair. The rich give crumbs to the poor, sometimes find excuses to withhold said crumbs, and leave the poor to fight amongst themselves. Of course, the poor are no angels, screwing over each other and getting violent even towards people who don’t deserve it. It just seems that the rich hold themselves above the squabbles of the masses, even when they are the cause of the squabbles. They are like the bird in that cage. Their masters prefer them hungry.

The factory owner is desperate to provide a good dowry for his daughter’s wedding, perhaps to show that his family is worthy. At the same time, although the wealthy fiancé’s mother offhandedly said that no dowry was necessary, that may have just been formality talk and his taking her at her word would have led to real problems down the line. Sinking a ton of money into the wedding and the dowry, the factory owner is desperate that the business be as profitable as possible, which means no mercy for those who are absent or those who are slower than other workers. Like that rock that Jungchul breaks, trouble rolls downhill.

The world in which Jungchul lives is unfair. And Jungchul is not fair either. Just like the soybean paste factory owner, Jungchul does what he does to take care of his family and no one else. His attempts to break up the fight at the construction site is probably due to him not wanting to endanger his already busted truck. He takes away Yonwuk’s door to punish him for running off with the money, even though it puts young Minsoo in danger. His desperate attempt to keep the factory owner from firing and evicting his sister leads to two other workers getting fired. And what does Jungchul do? Tries to get other workers fired just so that he can get those supposed friends of his hired, the ones who would just as soon beat him unconscious because they have half-convinced themselves that he stole the money. And it is not clear that he wouldn’t if he had the opportunity. Hana may feel forbidden sympathy for that caged bird. Meanwhile, Jungchul slaughters a chicken for the pleasure of his boss, leaving those eggs motherless.

Of course, it is not as if Jungchul is uniquely terrible. His coworkers at the factory blame him for something his associate did and place him responsible for making amends under the threat of violence. His girlfriend is only in a few scenes, the first notable one being her calling him an idiot for breaking up a fight instead of trying to find a way to get paid out of it. The second scene is her commending him for the scheme to get a group of elderly laborers fired. Those elderly workers do not exactly earn his sympathy when they mock his sister for her alleged antics at the bus terminal. Sooyun is…highly troubled. Hana is…a kid. Myunghoo seems to be the conscience of the movie, but even he has faults that cannot simply be explained by his mental capacities.

It is not as if Jungchul is uniquely terrible. The world in which Jungchul lives is unfair. He is trying. Perhaps he could be a better person if he were not in such desperation. Yet, it is clear that his actions bring him no closer to happiness. He might not even succeed in doing what he wants with such tactics. And, in the meantime, he alienates others for the sake of catering to those who would just as soon see him dead. He does this all to stay alive, but is he really alive…or just in a state of survival? Could he ever step outside of this way of thinking or is it too late?

I guess one has to be in the mood to endure this film…and have some time set aside for it. It is not an easy watch. But if you can get yourself in the mindframe to watch it, then it is a good one.





WTF ASIA 221: Om Shanti Om (India: 2007, approx. 167-169 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available in AustraliaCanada, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.


WTF ASIA 222: Hers (Mongolia: 2017, approx. 83 minutes)

No Wikipedia

Available in AustraliaCanada, the United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.