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Credit: Lotte Entertainment

How South Korea lured cinemagoers back with a film about a deadly pandemic

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Sep 12, 2020, 12:16 PM EDT

Escapism doesn’t exactly appear to be a major priority for cinemagoers in South Korea. Sure, the country’s rigorous COVID-19 testing has been hailed as a model of how to efficiently handle a deadly pandemic. Nevertheless, you still wouldn’t expect a film about, well, erm, a deadly pandemic to lure back nearly two million of its citizens to the big screen. Yet following its premiere in June, Cho Il-hyung’s directorial debut Alive — now available on Netflix — did just that.

Unlike the blanket shutting of all theaters in most countries since the coronavirus outbreak, the majority in South Korea stayed open. However, despite the introduction of staggered seating, zero-contact food and ticket kiosks, and even customer service robots, attendance inevitably plummeted.

Fewer than one million tickets were sold in April — the lowest number in South Korea’s box office history — compared to the figure of 16.8 million just three months previously. But as the country led the way in flattening the curve, its cinemagoing public slowly began to gravitate toward both the multiplex and the arthouse once more.

Intruder, a mystery thriller in which an architect’s sister returns 25 years after disappearing (or does she?), and Innocence, a courtroom drama about a lawyer defending her murder suspect mother, were the first homegrown releases to entice significant numbers back in early June. But arriving just a few weeks later, Alive was the first post-COVID-19 release to pull in the magic million.

Credit: Lotte Entertainment

Furthermore, it accounted for 62 percent of all box office taking on its opening day and enjoyed a three-week stint at the top of the box office chart. Not bad for a release that even its producers Spackman Entertainment Group admitted was a major gamble.

Beating the American adaptation of Matt Naylor’s original screenplay to the punch by several months (Alone, starring Teen Wolf graduate Tyler Posey and Donald Sutherland is due for release in October), Alive is another attempt to solidify South Korea as the new home of a genre it had previously ignored.

Indeed, for such a forward-thinking nation, South Korea was relatively late in embracing the zombie flick. It wasn’t until Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan reached No.11 on the all-time highest-grossers list in 2016 that the undead began to dominate the K-horror scene.

Alongside the animated prequel (Seoul Station) and live-action sequel (Peninsula) to Train to Busan, (a film Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright once described as the “best zombie movie I’ve seen in forever”), native audiences have also lapped up The Wailing, Rampant and The Odd Family: Zombie for Sale over the last four years. But was Alive, which this week drops around the rest of the world on Netflix, really worth leaving the relative safety of home for?

Gluttons for punishment may well think so. Let’s not forget that at the beginning of lockdown measures, the most-streamed movies included Outbreak and Contagion, two Hollywood pandemic tales that appeared to provide a strange sense of comfort for some in such desperate times. In an interview with Insider, the Media Psychology Research Center’s Dr. Pamela Rutledge even recommended watching such fare ahead of the news.

“It makes us feel we’re not alone, and there’s a resolution to these stories so we can express our anxiety that way. Whether it’s zombie movies or Contagion, any thriller ramps up a lot of anxiety and fear that then gets resolved by the end.”

Alive wastes little time in ramping up the anxiety, forgoing any backstory and thrusting us straight into the thick of all the zombie action. Within the first few minutes, our reluctant hero Joon-woo (Burning’s Yoo Ah-in) witnesses a schoolgirl tenderly embrace and then brutally devour her poor mom as mass panic ensues around the high-rise apartment block that will become both his safe haven and his prison. Moments later he’s forced to fight for his life when an apparently unaffected man seeking refuge from all the cannibalism violently transforms into a member of the walking dead.  

Brief footage of TV news broadcasts and social media help the bleached blonde tech obsessive, and the audience, to learn that a mysterious virus has transformed South Korea into a pit of flesh-eating zombies. But that’s pretty much all the information we get, or as Alive is far more interested in the psychological and emotional effects of living through such a nightmare scenario than the how, why, and what.

Credit: Lotte Entertainment

The first half of the movie is essentially a one-man show. With his parents and sister missing, Joon-woo must fight off the infected, learn how to make a little food go a long way and risk life and limb to get a phone signal all on his own. Although Alive was filmed when the word corona was more synonymous with a Mexican lager, it cleverly captures the sense of isolation, loneliness, and sheer boredom that anyone who’s endured quarantine will relate to.  

This initial slow-burning approach eventually picks up the pace as Joon-woo finds a fellow lone soul just in the nick of time. Best known for her romantic comedy roles, Park Shin-hye impresses as Kim Yoo-bin, a resourceful final girl more at home with a hand axe than a drone. But her introduction ultimately robs the film of its unique selling point. Indeed, as the two survivors join forces, Alive switches from a moody character study that just happens to be set in the midst of a zombie apocalypse into a run of the mill B-movie filled with the kind of chaotic chase scenes and gruesome head stabbings we’ve all seen countless times before.

Of course, those who got the chance to see Alive on the big screen were no doubt more willing to oversee its flaws. It's an experience that American audiences could only have dreamed of at the time, after all. Indeed, due to America’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USA's major cinema chains were all still in the midst of a six-month closure. And, now that they’re starting to open in certain states, there are still very credible reasons to be concerned that theater chains — to say nothing of state and federal governments with their lackluster responses — are doing enough to make theatergoing safe. South Korea, however, had handled things so much more efficiently, and as a result, its public felt safe enough to sit in a darkened theater for 99 minutes watching a movie about the ultimate worst-case scenario.  

Nevertheless, for a film that has literally helped to usher in a new era of South Korean cinema, Alive still seems far more suited to its adopted Netflix home. Lacking the thrills and spills of Peninsula — the similarly-themed horror which recently became the year’s biggest domestic hit — it doesn’t quite make full use of the widescreen and surround sound experience. But on a rainy day in front of the TV? Well, there are certainly worse forms of exposure therapy. 

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