Interview: Park Jung-bum
With one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, death permeates the lives of the poor in South Korea. Park Jung-bum's breakthrough debut The Journals of Musan (10), which follows a North Korean defector's quest for employment in Seoul, takes place on the outer margins of society. While a fluffy white dog provided warmth for Musan, there is no space for repose in the life of Jungchul, played in a starring role by the director himself in his new feature Alive (San-da). A manual laborer who scrapes together a living in the Gangwon province, Jungchul has run out of luck and savings: his parents are dead; his sister suffers from acute depression and her daughter is fatherless; his attempt to industrially produce soybean paste has resulted in nothing but rotten produce; his team manager has betrayed him and his colleagues and fled with their pay. Amid such hard times, Jungchul struggles onwards with aggressive physicality and a primal drive for survival.
Like his bold, vigorous performance, Park's unflinching long takes work in the film like tenacious stares—often directed at scenes of violence or despair. The new film departs from the Italian Neorealist style that heavily informed The Journals of Musan. Instead, the dominant influence here is that of recent East Asian cinema. The movie’s persistence and heightened despondency recall Wang Bing's The Ditch and Secret Sunshine by Lee Chang-dong, for whom Park formerly worked as an assistant director. But Park's Alive has more drive than the works of his contemporaries. The experience of watching its three hours of anguish may at times feel like walking through mud, but Park's belief in the stamina of his characters pulls us through to the end: giving up is not an option for Jungchul.
Alive has its New York premiere at BAM’s Migrating Forms series on December 14. FILM COMMENT spoke to Park after the film’s international premiere at the 67th Locarno Film Festival.
How long did the project take to complete? It's been a few years since your last feature, The Journals of Musan, which dealt with the lonely life of a North Korean defector in South Korea.
Since The Journals of Musan, I shot a short film called Dear Du-han (13), which was produced by the Korean Human Rights Commission as part of an omnibus film series, If You Were Me 6. I started thinking about the script of Alive immediately after completing The Journals of Musan. Right before the shoot I finally received funding from external investors on top of the support from the Jeonju Digital Project 2014 set up by the Jeonju International Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere. I started pre-production in August 2013 so it has taken a year in total.
You played the lead character in both of your features. While Musan was a near-silent figure reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano, whom you’ve cited as an inspiration, Jungchul is very different, particularly in the defiant way he communicates with others.
In Journals of Musan, Musan experiences psychological problems because of what happens to him over the course of the film. It shows how you can change when undergoing such a process. In Alive, Jungchul is struggling to survive, responding to external triggers by shouting and fighting. For me, the two characters share the same interior world but they express it differently externally.
In The Journals of Musan, the focus is on one character and the film is entirely driven by him. In Alive, the story is sprawling with many more characters performing significant roles. How did you navigate the switch?
The underlying theme of The Journals of Musan, which deals with a story about a North Korean defector, was loneliness. This is why his unresponsiveness was essential. In Alive, the central themes went beyond loneliness to encompass death and love, which is why it was important to include more characters.
For The Journals of Musan, you mentioned that you took on the main role because you didn't want other actors to have to suffer the pain and endurance Musan had to go through. But in Alive, the other characters also suffer beatings. What changed?
All I can say is that I'm extremely sorry. The scene where Sooyun whips herself was one of my biggest concerns in the making of the film. Even though the actress Lee Seungyeon agreed, I struggled with the ethical dilemma of making her go through with it. Initially the scene involved falling down a mountain, but we decided against it and replaced it with a scene of self-harming in a last-minute decision. First, I demonstrated the scene by whipping myself to show Lee Seungyeon how painful the experience would be for her. Even so, she still agreed to do the scene. I felt terrible for going through with it.
Alive is mostly composed of long takes. The takes begin before violent moments occur and still continue after they're over.
I'm not the type of director that enjoys filming in a style that is rigidly faithful to a script. I prefer being more impulsive and intuitive, so I provide my actors with a key word or a given situation and ask for them to respond, which is probably why I have to shoot so many takes for each scene. But because all of the individual takes were different, it’s impossible to cut them and assemble them separately. My intentions with this film were to portray being alive—the sounds and the physicality of breathing—as well as the effort and sweat it takes to survive. Dividing the shots and assembling them together would have felt fake and disingenuous. I didn't want for the flow to be interrupted. Breathing is not a manufactured process but a natural act, which is what I wanted to explore in the film.
How about the long takes depicting violence?
We couldn't shoot too many takes for the scenes involving violence, because they were emotionally charged and too physically demanding. Throughout the shooting of this film I lost a lot of weight. When the other actors hit me, they could feel their punches echo through my bones and I could sense that they were being cautious because they didn't want to hurt me. But what I needed was actually the opposite. I realized early on that hitting with half a punch only results in shooting more takes as it provides less convincing outcomes. When somebody is hit with genuine intent and aggression, we could finish the scene with one or two takes.
We've spoken about Sooyun, but there are other key female roles in Alive. How did you develop their characters?
All the characters in the film are a part of me, and their interactions are a staging of my internal conflicts. I suffer from panic attacks and I'm always aware of the inevitability of death. The question of what it means to live in this world could be expressed through each of these characters.
South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world, so it’s a big issue. The catalyst for Alive was the suicide of my friend four years ago. I have internalized the memory of my friend and expressed it through all the characters in the film.
While suicide is death, the title of the film, Alive, points towards life. Did you develop the story according to these themes?
The film operates on the paradox of life and death. My thought was that within life there is death but in death there is no life. People who live in the outer parts of Seoul are experiencing poverty without reprieve in a capitalist society. I wanted to portray this milieu: the process involved living with others and the need to ask for forgiveness.
Early on in the film, Jungchul steals a door from a colleague who ran away with his money, but brings the door back later on. These scenes represent something important for me. Taking the door metaphorically turns the mind into a barren desert; returning the door and bolting it back into place represents forging connections. More importantly, it's an act that can be interpreted as forgiveness, not only for another person but also—on Jungchul’s part— for himself. For me, living life is to be in contact with other people. It involves falling in and out of love and going through painful experiences but also having to forgive oneself, which is the most important thing to do but also the most difficult to accomplish.
Could you elaborate on the theme of Christianity in the film? The church features in key moments of Alive as well as The Journals of Musan and films by Lee Chang-dong, whom you worked with as an assistant director.
I had many questions on the existence of God as a child, and eventually came to believe that God is dead. When I would pray and nothing happened, I immediately arrived at the conclusion that God didn’t exist. Nevertheless, I continued to go to church. I think faith is the moment that you realize you believed in it all along.
Hana asks her uncle why he doesn't pray in church, which contradicts her action in a previous scene where she steals money from a church donation box. It’s a scene that illustrates the complexities of faith. I think religion plays an extremely important role in our daily lives, which is why it appears in my films. Whenever I deal with broader themes, such as life and death, religion naturally comes to the foreground. It's not because I'm a believer or not, but because I feel it’s a part of the human experience.