Korea (2020) Dir. Cho Il-hyung
The zombie genre appears to be one that has little room for development beyond the premise of infected people eating the uninfected, whilst those who can, try to survive. Leave it to the Koreans, who came rather late to the zombie party, to find a way to bring a fresh approach with them.
Joon-Woo (Yoo Ah-In) spends his days gaming and streaming his efforts online while his parents and sister are out at work and school. After waking up late, he finds a note from his mother telling him to go out food shopping but he chooses to head straight for his computer instead. During a break, Joon-Woo switches on the TV to see a news report about a deadly virus spreading across the country.
Looking out the window Joon-Woo sees the carnage of crazed people eating each other, as an infected neighbour bursts into the flat. Joon-Woon fights him off and barricades himself in. After a few days in comfort, the power, phone and internet are cut off; once the cabin fever sets in, Joon-Woo goes mad and tries to hang himself when something distracts him from across the street – another survivor!
Much like with Shaun Of The Dead and the zom-com, any Korean zombie film will be held up against Train to Busan whether fairly or not. This is not simply an easy-to-hand measuring stick – even its pseudo-sequel Peninsula basks in its shadow – it is becoming an unavoidable cliché. But until something comes along to rival or surpass Busan, we’re stuck with it.
If we are going to make comparisons, the French film The Night Eats The World is closer to #Alive than the others, with both films examining the struggle of the lone survivor inside their sanctuary rather than the nightmare occurring outside. I personally would argue this is the more dynamic of the two, Night being too laid back with its depiction of the protagonist’s ennui.
So, where does #Alive fit in? The recent comedy Zombie For Sale shows, as with Busan, the Koreans know how to add new ideas into the mix and this Netflix release shows further signs of this. However, they can’t take all of the credit, as the script comes from American writer Matt Naylor, who wrote if for a US production entitled Alone, which he adapted with director Cho Il-hyung for his version.
As a modern kid beholden to technology, the internet and phone going down leaves Joon-Woon to rely on his own wits. He is smart enough to barricade the door and cover the windows but the empty fridge is an ominous sign he may not last long. The zombies however are smart, fast, and relentless. In one scene a female police officer set upon by a hoard of zombies; with one bullet left she tries to take her own life but the zombies knock the gun from her hand.
Eventually the claustrophobia, starvation, and uncertainty drives Jon-Woon to end it all. Under any other circumstances this would seem grim and over dramatic, but Cho plays it with melancholy given Joon-Woon’s age. We wonder if Cho could have stretched this idea for the whole 98 minutes, but then it might have been as dull as The Night Eats The World. Plus, the script has other ideas.
Cue a laser pointer from across the street courtesy of Yoo-Bin (Park Shin-Hye), a young woman also alone, though she is better prepared and more resourceful than Joon-Woon. Through clumsy exchanges they manage to communicate their names, share food via a zip line created with the aid of Joon-Woon’s drone, and eventual share walkie-talkies to formulate a plan to escape together to the top floor of Joon-Woon’s building.
With the pace picking up we head into familiar territory, our plucky heroes slicing and dicing their way to possible safety. Whilst there is little in the way of innovation, the action is solid with some nicely laid out set pieces to show us who the real fighter is. But there are a few more surprises to add an extra dimension to the psychological aspect of the horror, underlining how corrupt the human mind can get in the name of survival.
Of the two characters, Joon-Woon gets the most attention, leaving Yoo-Bin as a bit of a mystery. Her story may have been just as compelling as his, but we shall never know which is a slight disappointment, though it seems the payoff is her being more a fearless butt kicker than Joon-Woon is. Fortunately, Yoo-Bin is no damsel in distress, and credit to Park Shin-Hye for giving the roe more substance than the writing allows.
Yoo Ah-In does a great job getting inside the head of Yoon-Woon despite being twice his age in real life, conveying the hardships of isolation, the worry of not knowing about his family, and the onset of starvation with conviction. Even with limited screen together, he and Park Shin-Hye create a nice chemistry that isn’t sullied by any predictable romantic overtones.
For a first time director, Cho shows signs of studying other zombie films to ensure this will appeal to the hardcore genre fans, through the gory violence and tension building moments of an impending attack. He also lets the camera create the requisite unsteady chaos during the action scenes and the suspenseful atmosphere inside the flat as Joon-Woon steadily loses his grip.
However, the relevance of the hashtag in the title is underplayed, almost like it was a gimmick to make the film stand out, as it only features briefly. The main point may be to illustrate how modern youth are reliant on technology but under the circumstances, maybe it should have been featured more before eliminating it?
#Alive is a film of two halves – a thoughtful, psychological opener then out genre chaos to close. It passes muster as suitable zombie fare and a character driven drama, though could have done more by exploring both protagonists. Good effort overall.