Although filming finished months before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, #Alive is a film about lockdown almost as much as zombies. The immediate problem for young gamer Oh Joon-woo (Ah-In Yoo) isn’t so much the ravening hordes that roam the streets and hallways of his Seoul apartment building, as it is being confined to his family home with dwindling supplies and only tenuous electronic links to the outside world.
In this, and a few other ways, #Alive’s a fairly original take on the zombie horror sub-genre, but it’s a disappointment from a storytelling point of view. The story takes forever to get going, then rushes through development to a climax that, while impressively filmed (simultaneously beautiful and horrible), is almost laughably weak in dramatic terms.
#Alive starts in a conventional manner for the genre, with a normal day interrupted by news reports about mysterious mass outbreaks of aggressive behaviour. Their true nature becomes quickly apparent, as Joon-woo witnesses marauding zombies from his window and then has to repel a bitten neighbour (Hyun-Wook Lee) seeking refuge in his apartment and, predictably enough, soon turns into one of the undead. (A vivid episode involving bleeding eyes and bone-breaking paroxysms.)
Throughout, Joon-woo’s stuck inside the apartment and will remain so for a large part of the film, briefly connected to the world by his internet gaming and live-streaming—as well as the TV, where the news continues (together with ramen commercials, in what seems to be writer-director Il Cho’s dig at business’s own survival instinct). Implored in a message from his parents to stay in the apartment, he writes ‘I MUST SURVIVE’ on a Post-It, providing the movie with a title and himself with an obvious mission.
Eventually, though, the water runs out, the internet fades away, his phone battery dies, and food becomes scarce. The refrigerate is more useful as a barricade now anyway! Joon-woo’s breaking point comes, almost, when he receives what seems to be a voicemail of his family’s final moments, giving him the strength and rage to venture out of the apartment for the first time.
This is a fiasco, but (40-minutes into the film) it finally brings about the arrival of a second character, Kim Yoo-bin (the appealing Shin-Hye Park). She’s a young woman around Joon-woo’s age who lives in the apartment building opposite. #Alive picks up a bit from here, as there’s a chance to show some human interaction rather than Joon-woo moping around his apartment alone.
The attempts of the pair to reach safety inform the rest of the story, and involve clever business with Joon-woo’s drone, with a rope slung across the void between the two characters’ apartment buildings so they can send items back and forth. Here, #Alive, which is entirely set in this single complex of buildings, shows imagination in making the most of its constrained situation. The zombies are also a little more interesting than in many other examples of the genre, seeming to have slightly more intelligence than usual (i.e. they can use door handles) and perhaps even a touch of actual malice, rather than mindless bloodlust.
The introduction of a second character also allows us to see Joon-woo in more depth. He’s such a child of technology but, in many ways, Yoo-bin’s the more practical one of the duo; and his despair is contrasted with her hope. For example, when she insists on continuing to water her houseplant despite the apparent collapse of civilisation!
Unfortunately, these new layers of interest aren’t enough to lift #Alive above the torpor of the tedious first part with Joon-woo alone. A lot happens and the fight sequences are hyperkinetic, but the narrative is oddly slow. And while the loving cinematographer of Won-ho Son is beautiful in itself (dominated by large fields of carefully arranged pastel shades), it works against the credibility of a grim situation. If the apocalypse will be this gorgeously art-directed, bring it on, you might well ask!
There’s little terribly wrong with #Alive, even if the ending manages to bizarrely combine a deus ex machina of the most random kind with what seems to be (but probably isn’t) glaring product placement by a social media company. But there’s little to set it apart from dozens of other films in this overexploited genre. And that’s surprising given the vibrancy and imagination of so much contemporary South Korean cinema. The idea is ripe with potential (Rear Window of the Living Dead?), but the execution is rather lifeless and superficial. Ironic given the title. It’s slick but never makes us care.
SOUTH KOREA | 2020 | 98 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | KOREAN
Cast & Crew
director: Il Cho.
writers: Il Cho & Matt Naylor.
starring: Ah-In Yoo, Shin-Hye Park, Hyun-Wook Lee, Bae-soo Jeon & Hye-Won Oh.