Cho Il-hyung’ #Alive is one of the first theatrical South Korean features to not just release during the coronavirus pandemic, but also be a commercial success in an era of limited screenings and social distancing. With the kind of business the film did just a few months ago, it became a symbol of hope for the struggling entertainment industry that even in times of peril, there is a possibility to pose a comeback. In an interview, one of the producers was quoted as saying that one of the reasons for its success may have been due to the genre - that while zombie apocalypse movies are perhaps best enjoyed as theatrical experiences (owing to their reliance on sound and production design), the film’s theme relates to what viewers might be experiencing or at least questioning at this very moment in the confinement of their own homes. So, #Alive is now on Netflix, and might I add, it is a great move.
Joon Woo is a gamer who usually calls in a late morning. His family has already left the apartment for the day when he notices some commotion outside. Just as he switches on the news, the caster speaks to visuals that Joon can see right outside his front door. Seoul has been hit by a bug in which its residents are falling into the clutches of zombies. As one gets bitten, they turn cannibalistic and bite another, thus creating a chain of infected individuals. After narrowly escaping an attack from a neighbor whom he lets in out of goodwill, Joon Woo realizes that he is in true danger. The final text he receives from his father is the one asking him to survive, and that becomes his motto for the rest of the film.
For those who felt that I gave away too much, this is barely the first ten minutes of #Alive, putting us into the middle of the drama as fast as it possibly can. For an industry almost obsessed with the genre (Train to Busan, Peninsula, Rampant, Seoul Station), #Alive takes an interesting route when approaching its subject. While it was certainly made before the pandemic hit the world, the movie is completely disinterested in understanding the how, what and when of this situation. For instance, there are no villains in Alive - no comments on shameless capitalism, the problematic social structure of the city, the lack of law enforcement etc., etc. Those who are bitten don’t belong to a certain class. As long as you are human and alive in Seoul, you are probably at risk. Thus, the film quickly shifts gears and becomes an exploration of the human psyche and it acts under the pressure of isolation, the anxiety of an uncertain future, and finally, the very real danger of trying to survive without food, water, electricity, social contact and… the internet.
Joon is a live video game streamer and his entire life is based on using technology to connect to the world. In this, he even forgets to go out and get groceries (thus forced to ration his food intake as he spends days alone in his apartment). There are some fantastic moments of slow torture for the protagonist - more than the zombies, it is loneliness, fear, and starvation that has forced him to hallucinate, cry, make him suicidal, all of it. He has all the gadgets and apps in the world at his disposal but none can save him from an actual attack. Eventually, Joon connects to a neighbour girl, who is also isolated in her apartment. The two manage to stay in contact with the use of an old-fashioned walkie talkie. When all the drama is over at the end, it is stated that the centre is seeking out survivors with the use of geotagging on their social media. It is small moments that shed light on the pros and cons of technology throughout the film that makes its title go beyond just a post-millennial hashtag.
Being ‘alive’ plays a key role in the movie’s narrative. Of course, there is Joon’s early declaration of survival, his neighbour’s careful rationing of water and food, and general presence of mind and will to escape, but there are also these zombies that are still somewhat human. They can be ‘killed’ using regular guns, they remember how to perform human skills and some even perform those as a cyclical pattern after they are converted. This makes the central conflict of #Alive more human than a zombie apocalypse (something that would traditionally be considered a fantastical or supernatural danger). The characters in the movie are attempting to overcome a realistic albeit brutal obstacle. I mean, if we can live through a pandemic, is an apocalypse far behind?
#Alive is a unique movie in that it is a genre film while also a proper star vehicle. The film stars Yoo Ah-in who is known the world over for his starring role in Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film Burning (which competed for the Palme d’Or). Like Burning, he lends a genuine vulnerability, frustration, and fear to his character. The only other cast member is Park Shin-hye as his neighbour, another household name with You’re Beautiful and Memories of Alhambra. Both of them have warm chemistry in their interactions and obviously having the A-listers headline the film gives it an extra appeal.
Music & Other Departments
As most of the film basically follows one character around, the usage of camerawork from Joon’s perspective adds to the tension of the scenes with the zombies. As is expected from the genre, the make-up and production design of the film is impeccable. The zombie transformation scenes are especially creepy and grim. The action choreography is set to beautiful brutality and the score and sound effects (hear out for some random killings in the background as well) add to that drama. The film is available in English dubbing, but I would suggest going for the original audio with Korean subtitles.
#Alive is pretty straightforward as a survival drama and its biggest asset is its pacing. For a film that is mostly confined to two apartments and a lobby and two human actors, there is enough happening every few minutes that one doesn’t get bored. There are several edge-of-your-seat sequences as well, even those which don’t necessarily show a gruesome death like a narrow escape outside the apartment when Joon has just about given up on his will to live, and then yet again when he ventures out to scavenge for some food. There are subtle moments of humour as well.
Train to Busan is considered one of the seminal works in the genre from the South Korean industry and it is so due to its strong emotional core. #Alive touches upon a familial bond at the beginning but the rest of the film does not delve into it at all. Perhaps the lack of depth in writing and allegory and/or commentary on the hierarchy of survival and privilege is what keeps it from being worthy of being remembered long after it is over. There’s also an unnecessarily villainous twist in the end which does nothing to elevate the story, but it’s still visually delectable.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes! I love zombie movies.
Do I recommend it?
Yes! #Alive is a gripping and fun watch that has personal resonance during the lockdown.