The Life-Affirming Quality of #ALIVE

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#Alive, a scrappy South Korean zombie thriller directed by Cho Il-hyung, is the most life-affirming, ceaselessly reassuring zombie movie to hit screens since 2016’s Train to Busan. The movie stars Yoo Ah-in as Jun-u, a video game streamer trapped in his apartment in Seoul while a zombie outbreak spreads uncontrollably across metropolitan regions of South Korea. With limited resources and even fewer options to communicate with the outside world, Jun-u, in the words of his father, “#Mustsurvive” or die trying.

#Alive became available to stream worldwide on Netflix following its impressive June debut in its native country, where it topped the box office and became the most profitable movie released in South Korea since February (before the Covid-19 pandemic) earlier this year. Modest in scale but abounding with heart, #Alive is exceptionally optimistic and perhaps the perfect Covid-19 watch, particularly for those of us in parts of the country still under strict lockdown orders.

For the early goings, #Alive ostensibly asterisks every scene with cruelty. Families are separated, innocent apartment denizens are ripped to shreds by the infected, and Jun-u is trapped alone in his apartment, unable to reach anyone on the outside and grief-stricken over the uncertainty of where his father, mother, and sister might be. The parallels to the early days of quarantine are almost uncanny, an eerily prescient (filming wrapped in late 2019) look at life under lockdown. Jun-u is at first careless. He fails to ration his supplies, drinks and naps, and plays video games while bumbling around his small flat, like he’s auditioning for his very own lockdown comedy showcase. The circumstances are amusing in a verisimilar, we’ve all been there kind of way, but the dour edges soon encase the entire scenario as the audience, like Jun-u, soon realize just how horrific the circumstances outside of his apartment are.

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Merriment and blithe disregard for the outbreak are soon replaced by moments of gripping tension and desolating trauma. Jun-u’s supplies wane. His sleep is interrupted by screams in the hollow night. As one week becomes three, he’s still not managed to make contact with any members of his family. Nighttime routines become daytime ones, and lucid manifestations of his mother and father soon breach the periphery– he’s living in a hypnotic state of isolation.

*Spoilers for #Alive will follow, so for those of you who haven’t yet had a chance to stream it, I’d advise you to stop reading now.

The movie gives you no indication that anything terrible has happened to Jun-u’s family, and for the first half of the movie– like every zombie flick that has become before it– the presumption is that the thrust of the plot will involve Jun-u trying to reunite with his them. That is, of course, until he manages to attach his phone to a selfie-stick and stretch it far enough over his balcony to get a cell signal and access his voicemail. He listens to the only new notification he has– it’s from his mother. She called to say they were safe at his father’s office. Moments later, zombies breach the perimeter of the office, and Jun-u listens helplessly while his family is killed on the call– this was several weeks ago. For several weeks, Jun-u had been holding out hope for a lifeline that would never come.

Distraught and beyond help, Jun-u makes a final video on his computer, saying only two words. “Hello.” There’s a long beat. “Bye.” He then wraps a noose around his neck and hangs himself. His body flails and writhes, and while half the movie remains, it’s hard to feel that Jun-u’s story isn’t over. That is, of course, until a lifeline is extended to him in the form of a neighbor, Yoo-bin (Park Shin-hye) across the quad in an adjacent building. Using a laser pointer, she cleverly communicates with him by pointing to words on the wall. “No,” she tells him. Jun-u manages to free himself from the noose and collapses onto the floor.

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Narratively and thematically, the movie morphs into a profoundly different beast after this development. While most zombie movies are content to saturate themselves in the ennui and horror of what a zombie apocalypse would likely look like, #Alive suddenly becomes something altogether different, a romantic-comedy by way of a zombie apocalypse, one that successfully balances the tricky, dialectical tones of horror and optimism like a grittier Warm Bodies (2013). Jun-u has found his reason to live by way of the girl-next-door, so to speak, and she has found hers. Though neither has anything to live for beyond one another, it’s enough for them, and all the horrors in the world aren’t enough to erase that primal urge to connect with someone else.

One of my fundamental contentions about horror, and one that holds true for most every genre entry, is how curative horror is at its core. More than any other genre, horror has the unique capacity to diagnose and cure what ails us. It’s fitting, then, that #Alive rolled out– almost serendipitously– in the middle of a global pandemic that, beyond its own staggering death toll, has also seen a sharp rise in suicides and a decline in general mental well-being.

Mental health is languishing, and accessible clinical and social-emotional resources are sparse. We all #Mustsurvive, though. There is always a reason. As someone who has grappled with ideation and an attempt before, I don’t say this half-heartedly, like the blasé, quote-box equivalent of, “No, don’t kill yourself.” I mean it as genuinely as I have ever meant anything before.

Jun-u and Yoo-bin are near death at the tail end of the movie. They’re stranded on a rooftop, their only hope for escape having disappeared, as zombies charge toward them. They share a knowing look. They’re happy to have known one another, and though they’re about to die, they both say, without saying much at all, that the little time they spent together was worth it. It was worth it to stay alive just a little bit longer. Naturally– I did say this was a life-affirming movie after all– rescue comes at the last minute in the form of an evacuation chopper, and Jun-u and Yoo-bin are whisked away to safety. The movie ends on a poignant note. News reports note that several survivors remain in the infected areas. Jun-u, early in the film, posts online “#I_must_survive,” and as he flees alongside Yoo-bin, several similar messages pop-up above the surrounding buildings. There are more survivors just like them, and they too, the movie suggests, will be rescued.

In the midst of everything going on, #Alive was an ardently uplifting movie watching experience. Like the best the genre has to offer, I walked away feeling renewed and revitalized. I was grateful for the life I have and more grateful to get to share it with the people I love. That sentiment is mercurial. There are days and hours and even minutes when it doesn’t feel that way. Times where my mind browbeats me into submission, a delusional notion that it’s all just too much, and that there’s an easy way to escape all the pain. Movies like #Alive remind me to keep hope alive in those darkest of moments. There’s always someone or something there that can change my mind– I just have to be around to see it.

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