This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.
In spite of the very many differences in setting, plot, character arcs, mise-en-scène and style, Park Jungbum's "Alive" and Igarashi Kohei's "Hold Your Breath Like a Lover," both part of this year's Locarno Film Festival, share a concern for the future of blue-collar workers, and provide tremendously interesting insight into what's going on in two of the most advanced economies in Northeast Asia.
According to a recent survey based on data gathered by the International Monetary Fund, South Korea and Japan currently occupy 32nd and 25th place respectively in the world ranking for Gross Domestic Product per capita. That is to say, in year 2013 each single member of the South Korean population produced $24,328 worth of goods and services, whereas the average Japanese totaled the impressive amount of $39,100. (Luxembourg leads the world ranking with per capita income of $120,000.)
However, these are but cold figures. We know how statistics work: If X has two eggs and Y has none, data would suggest that both X and Y have an egg to eat. So what do we actually know about the people behind these big numbers and charts, that is to say about those who produce a country's wealth? How are South Korean and Japanese workers doing in today's economy? What are their prospects for the future?
Told almost exclusively through shaky hand-held shots pretty much in the style of Kim Ki-duk's "family dramas" "Pietà" and "Moebius," the several-years-in-the-making "Alive" chronicles the struggle of manual laborer Jungchul (played by the director himself), a man in his thirties who works on construction sites in order to support his sister Su-yeon and her nine-year-old daughter Ha-na. Needless to say, Jungchul must gain a lot of money and he must do it fast, so he can eventually realize his dream of building a house for his loved ones before winter starts, and moving to the sunny Philippines in spring.
Jungchul's desperate need for money drives him to accept a job in a soybean paste factory whose owner is willing to pay a "production bonus" to employees who work fast and meet deadlines. Everyone seems to be happy at this point: The factory's production grows steadily and Jungchul gets a good salary every week. However, "Alive" is no "Metropolis"; the friendly handshake between the capitalist and a representative of the laboring class is nowhere to be found in the three-hour-long South Korean drama. As a matter of fact, Jungchul soon realizes that he has very little to be grateful for. Time being money as far as production is concerned, he can't afford to waste a single second during his shift, especially because the boss is constantly keeping an eye on employees through CCTV: Jungchul has to work hard, fast and continuously, and, in order to do so, he must suppress all the feelings and thoughts that might slow him down in his run towards financial gain. Not only does he neglect his clinically depressed, runaway sister, he also contrives to have his elderly fellow workers replaced by younger and stronger men, in order to obtain a raise from the boss. Park shows workers fighting each other out of jealousy and rivalry, stealing each other's wages and stabbing each other in the backs for the sake of money. In sum, the obsession for cash makes Jungchul and his fellow workers give up their humanity: Afraid of losing their paycheck, they become submissive and indifferent, to a point where they work like beasts of burden without complaining.
As philosopher Simone Weil wrote in her letters and essays during the 1930s, when she was working "undercover" at the assembly line in Renault's manufacturing plant: In the factory, workers' aggressiveness and frustration are directed against fellow exploited employees instead of their employer, because poverty makes people obedient rather than rebellious — an idea is echoed in "Alive" when a bird trainer tells Ha-na not to feed parrots because "they obey only when they are hungry." "Alive's" workers share another crucial characteristic with Weil's metalworkers: They model their lives on rich people's without actually having the economic means to afford it. This is made clear in a scene that brings to mind the famous train sequence in pre-Code Hollywood's working-class parable "Possessed": Jungchul stands in the street looking at rich youngsters singing karaoke, dancing and having fun in a parked bus on which he'll never be allowed. Not to mention the case of Su-yeon, who has no hesitation whatsoever in seducing a mentally retarded friend of Jungchul's in order to spend a few days in Seoul shopping.
If it sure is depressing to find out that people's working conditions in present-day South Korea has ben perfectly described in a series of articles written some eighty years before the making of the film, "Hold Your Breath Like a Lover" is no lighthearted comedy either. As a matter of fact, Igarashi Kohei's first feature and diploma film for Tokyo University of the Arts has a lot in common with George Romero's horror cult film cum anti-capitalist manifesto "Dawn of the Dead": Where Romero's living dead break into a shopping mall, Igarashi's dead blue-collar workers return to their workplace because work is all they had in life. But let us start from the beginning.
"Hold Your Breath Like a Lover" follows the daily routine of a few young night-shift workers in a Japanese factory at the end of 2017. They basically monitor big noisy machines and, as Marxist theorists would say, their alienation is best exemplified by the fact that it is totally unclear, to them as much as to us viewers, what the "final product" of their work is. After a closer look, one might even argue if what these people do during their shifts can be considered "work" at all, since the high-tech factory seems perfectly able to run itself without the supervision of human beings, who are then left to wander around, play video games, eat snacks, text each other, take a nap and so on — the very opposite of the backbreaking working days depicted in "Alive." And yet, the protagonists of "Hold Your Breath Like a Lover" hardly ever leave their boring, uninspiring workplace, even when they're off-duty: As is made explicit by one of the few lines of dialogue spoken in the film, random encounters and chit-chat with colleagues are better than going back home, eating and sleeping alone. Consequently, the whole film is almost entirely shot within the factory, with prolonged tracking shots through empty hangars and neon-lit basements turning the viewing experience into a sort of claustrophobic nightmare. On top of that, the few exterior scenes that allow us to escape from the factory and see the sun shine do not exactly bring about a glimmer of hope. As dystopic 2017 Japan is at war against "the enemy on the continent" (China? North Korea? South Korea?), the main characters use their free time to play some sort of paintball survival game in the woods, enacting a make-believe war among friends before being drafted and sent overseas to kill workers from another country for real. All in all, it seems that the young men and women of "Hold Your Breath Like a Lover" only have two options for their future: keep on working in the factory until they die like their parents did before them, or get killed at war like their friend Ando, whose ghost then returns to haunt the corridors of the factory anyway.
Just like classic movies about the worker's condition such as "Modern Times" or "Scenes From the Class Struggle," both "Alive" and "Hold Your Breath Like a Lover" ask questions about the future that it is not really up to cinema to answer: will the workers manage to preserve their humanity in a hostile, inhumane working environment? Will they ever come together and oppose the current situation? Is sabotaging production the only way to stop the exploitation of human beings by other human beings? Will workers ever be happy?
Only one thing is certain: As of now, when they die, Asian blue-collar workers do not go to Heaven.