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Reviews

Movie reviews: Animated feature Seoul Station, prequel to Train To Busan, is even better

Examine human nature and relationships amid battles against zombies and terrorists

This week is all about monsters and the people who fight them. Two movies feature the undead, eager to chew on the living. Another is about the terrorists who live among us. 

The animation feature Seoul Station(NC16, 92 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4.5/5 stars) is the smart, scary, breathlessly paced prequel to the smash hit Train To Busan (2016) and also the stronger of the two.

In Train To Busan, South Korean writer-director Yeon Sang Ho put the focus on a family unit on the run. In this look at the origins of the zombie plague, the city of Seoul is the real disease; the rise of the undead is simply a symptom. 

The story takes place over one night. As the homeless find rest on concrete pavements, one among them, an old man, is sick and blood-spattered.

Teenager Hye Sun runs from zombies in Seoul Station (above); Melanie (Sennia Nanua, left) is infected by a spore in The Girl With All The Gifts; and Daniel Radcliffe (far left) is an FBI agent acting as bait to draw out terrorists in Imperium.
Teenager Hye Sun runs from zombies in Seoul Station (above); Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is infected by a spore in The Girl With All The Gifts; and Daniel Radcliffe is an FBI agent acting as bait to draw out terrorists in Imperium. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

His mentally disabled brother begs for help, but the city's gatekeepers - the police, doctors and pharmacists - see him as a nuisance; the death of  a homeless man means nothing.

The maze of streets and underground stations becomes both a refuge and a hazard for teenage runaway Hye Sun (voiced by Shim Eun Kyung), who has to fight the biters as boyfriend Ki Woong (Lee Joon) criss-crosses the metropolis looking for her. 

Film-maker Yeon's  pessimistic take on human nature in the face of a catastrophe will feel familiar to Singaporeans. During the Sars outbreak, infected persons refused to quarantine themselves. When Zika appeared, hoarders swept the pharmacies clean of repellent and sold them online at a mark-up. Same with masks during the worst of the haze.

Yeon's lack of faith in humans never sinks into cheap nihilism, however; this is not a midnight- madness gore flick where death is treated flippantly. There are as many flashes of altruism as there are acts of selfishness; these courageous acts keep Hye Sun alive.

In another city, another time, but also hit by the zombie scourge, The Girl With All The Gifts(NC16, 111 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) takes a daring twist on the genre: The film is seen through the eyes of little girl Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a "hungry", slang for someone infected by a spore that turns people into ravenous carnivores.


Teenager Hye Sun runs from zombies in Seoul Station; Melanie (Sennia Nanua, above) is infected by a spore in The Girl With All The Gifts; and Daniel Radcliffe is an FBI agent acting as bait to draw out terrorists in Imperium. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Unlike the other hungries, who have gone feral, she and her cohort act like normal persons. Melanie might even be a genius.

Somewhere in a devastated England, the children are imprisoned as test subjects by researchers looking for a cure. Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) views them as lab animals, while teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton) thinks they should be given love and respect, their cannibal tendencies notwithstanding.

Based on the 2014 young adult novel by M.R. Carey, the story merges the zombie with the coming-of-age genre. The result is a surprisingly rich cast of characters and situations that never turn out as expected. 

What drives the movie is not the typical action of a square-jawed hero saving lives with a gun, but the deep, moving relationship between Melanie, a Pinocchio-like figure yearning to be human, and Helen, her surrogate mother. 

Melanie uses her wits, not guns, to save her friends, and it is all set in a world that never takes science for granted, and explains the hows and why of the outbreak in rational, non-condescending terms.

Imperium (M18, 109 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars) takes its title from a book written by a far-right thinker, and members of the American right wing - with their hatred of "mud people", the desire to close the borders to non-whites, the resentment at seeing a nation grow more diverse - are the villains in this crime thriller. 


Teenager Hye Sun runs from zombies in Seoul Station; Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is infected by a spore in The Girl With All The Gifts; and Daniel Radcliffe (above) is an FBI agent acting as bait to draw out terrorists in Imperium. PHOTO: CATHAY-KERIS FILMS

Nate (Daniel Radcliffe) is an FBI agent sent by Angela (Toni Collette) to infiltrate hate groups. He poses as a dealer in radioactive materials. He is bait to draw out terrorists. 

In this age of the alt-right and the Trumpheads, this movie's timing is impeccable (though the film never mentions current political events).

Radcliffe and Collette make a good crime-fighting team and through their investigations, an interesting cross-section of the white-power movement is shown.

They range from skinheads to sweater-wearing, BBQ-hosting middle-class bigots who look like perfect suburbanites, until their mouths open.

First-time feature director Daniel Ragussis gets too bogged down in the minutiae of plot twists, however, when he should justify the rage of those who feel their nation has been stolen by Jews and coloured people.

By withholding motive, his villains become cardboard baddies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Fighting monsters in the midst'. Print Edition | Subscribe