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-[Film Reviews]-, EAST ASIAN CINEMA, Korean Cinema

Another Korean Genre Sampling: ‘The Call’ & ‘#Alive’ (2020)

Directed by: Lee Chung-hyun [1], Cho Il-hyung [2] || Produced by: Syd Lim, Jeong Hui-sun [1], Eugene Lee, Saemi Kim, Saerom Kim [2]

Screenplay by: Lee Chung-hyun [1], Cho Il-hyung, Matt Naylor [2] || Starring: Jeon Jong-seo [1], Yoo Ah-in [2], Park Shin-hye1-2

Music by: Dalpalan [1], Tae-seong Kim [2] || Cinematography: Jo Young-jik [1], Won-ho Son [2] || Edited by: Yang Jin-mo [1], Min-kyeong Shin [2] || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean

Running Time: 112 minutes [1], 99 minutes [2] || 1 = The Call, 2 = #Alive

Much of Netflix’s appeal is not only the sheer volume of its content, but also its breadth and diversity, including its projects’ international origins. In addition to the platform’s notable French, Spanish, Indonesian, and Indian based films and limited series, Korean cinema, my not-so-risky pick for the strongest national cinema of this generation, has also flourished on the streaming platform. Modern Korean filmmaking is consistent enough that even its “lesser,” non-Best Picture winning features are often outrageously entertaining. Case in point are The Call and #Alive, the former another creepy serial killer movie (see also The Chaser [2008], I Saw the Devil [2010], The Chase [2017], Memories of Murder [2003], etc.) with a supernatural twist, the latter another zombie survival thriller (see also Train to Busan [2016], Kingdom [2019-2020]) that pays homage to both George A. Romero‘s Dead (1968, 1978, 1985) franchise and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). Both films are Netflix exclusives outside their native Korea and are some of the better East Asian “Original” programming on the site.

Top: Though modern technology features prominently in #Alive’s characterizations and plot mechanics, it is not used for satirical purposes as implied by the film’s marketing. Bottom: Prolific actress Park Shin-hye, also star of The Call, costars alongside Yoo Ah-in as #Alive’s female lead.

The Call is a remake of a British-Puerto Rican movie I had never heard of before dubbed The Caller (2011). Fundamental to their premises is a neat, if somewhat unclear time-travel device in which characters in different time periods, but the same geographic area, communicate via a type of supernatural phone that acts as an intertemporal link. Our protagonist, Park Shin-hye, is a typical, down-on-their-luck everywoman with estranged family, a relatable backstory defined by tragedy, and a sympathetic personality developed to perfection. Opposite her is her emotional inverse and narrative equal, the antagonist Jeon Jong-seo, whose character arc is as substantial as Shin-hye’s and, in the most unsettling of ways, almost as relatable. The sheer emotional range and believable tonal shifts across The Call’s story give it an epic, adventurous feeling despite its intimate characters and small scope. The Call may end like a typical (re: excellent) South Korean murder mystery, in exciting and bloody fashion, but it certainly doesn’t start like one, and those transitions between its first, second, and third acts are convincing.

The screenplay of The Call is therefore watertight save for a notable plot hole in its fun but sloppy mid-credits sequence. Its direction isn’t half bad, either, given its infrequent but important visual FX that demonstrate fluctuations in the narrative’s space-time continuum, as well as its memorable set-design, costumes, and makeup. The principle location of our supernatural telephone and split temporal cast, home during separate time periods for both Park and Jeon, is an imposing mansion that changes according to those aforementioned butterfly effects. The evolution of this setting reflects not only the development of our principle characters, but also the tone of the story. Its design is elegant and its range of decorations, near immaculate, recalling the atmosphere and inanimate characterizations of famous haunted houses like those in Psycho (1960) and The Shining (1980). As for Park and Jeon’s commendable makeup and costumes, their fashion mirrors their arcs, emotional statuses, and general control of the narrative (see also The Divines [2016]), who drives the story at a particular plot-point (for example, pay attention to their haircuts throughout).

Transitioning to #Alive, another Korean remake of a forgotten Western film (Alone [2019]), I was initially skeptical of the film’s social media references and the quasi satirical tone of its marketing (e.g. the selfie-stick features prominently in posters, trailers, etc.). I was relieved to find the latter almost nonexistent (#Alive is a straightforward disaster picture that takes its conflicts seriously) and that the former pays off in the film’s satisfying conclusion. Unlike Train to Busan or the lesser Romero Dead films, #Alive doesn’t wallow in its characters’ misery, a dour tone, or attempt laughable social commentary, instead emphasizing the effects of adrenaline-fueled survivalism and the slow grind of social isolation on its protagonist, Yoo Ah-in. That’s not to say the movie’s characters don’t have their low points — Yoo attempts suicide, but is saved by the clever introduction of female lead Park Shin-hye — but #Alive analyzes the disaster aspects of its zombie formula in ways that enhance its narrative, rather than distract from it with melodrama.

To back up a bit, #Alive is a zombie survival thriller with a small narrative scope but high production values, a solid genre film in other words. It follows Yoo, a typical Korean adolescent whose daily routine of school, videogames, and ignoring his parents’ advice is interrupted by a sudden, unexplained zombie outbreak that traps him alone in his family’s high-rise apartment. His isolation for the first half of the film prompts a series of behaviors (e.g. social media cries for help, panic over a loss of running water, cabin fever, etc.) that should recall flashbacks from viewers who’ve survived natural disasters or even those who’ve quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021. Director Cho Il-hyung keeps his movie’s repetitive scenery and deliberate pace snappy with entertaining set-pieces (e.g. Yoo barricading his apartment door as his zombified neighbors attempt to break in, a doomed policewoman fighting for survival in the courtyard below Yoo’s apartment, Yoo and Park’s heartfelt interactions across said courtyard, Park’s mad dash across said courtyard, which is swarming with zombies, to join Yoo, etc.), sharp editing, and a variety of Dutch angles, all of which maintain tension and prevent the story’s limited scope and location-photography from growing stale.

Left: In The Call’s first act, Jeon Jong-seo (foreground) is abused by her shaman foster mother in 1999. Right: In 2019, Park Shin-hye awaits fluctuations in the space-time continuum long after she regrets changing Jeon’s fate.

Put another way, The Call is an inventive, creative serial killer thriller that uses atypical plot-devices (e.g. a supernatural telephone, time-space continuum butterfly effects) to enhance a tried and true genre formula, while #Alive does the opposite, stripping its zombie epic of all the preachy, talky, melodramatic bells and whistles that kneecap other installments of the subgrenre to distill a potent, utilitarian adventure that doesn’t skimp on character development. Both movies are strong examples of quality genre films typical of modern Korean cinema, which amplify the weird angles of certain narrative formula in certain instances and double-down on the established strengths of classical filmmaking techniques in others. These well made, low-profile genre films are yet more evidence of how contemporary Korean filmmaking has earned its reputation as the world’s premiere national cinematic ecosystem.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: If you need additional proof of Korean cinema’s modern prowess, look no further than a couple random Netflix exclusives whose weaknesses pail in comparison to their entertainment and production value. I am tired of zombie movies and yet loved the straightforward directorial focus of #Alive, while The Call somehow manages to freshen the Korean staple of serial killer films. If your industry ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

However… The Call’s intertemporal cause-and-effect dynamics are not always consistent or sensible, a drawback which is most evident in the movie’s unnecessary stinger. #Alive must constantly reinvent its narrative progression to avoid the one-note nature of its setting, story, and monstrous antagonists.

—> Both films come RECOMMENDED.

? Always avoid creepy phone calls and never avoid grocery shopping.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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