At The Movies: #Alive turns zombie survival into thrilling game; The Eight Hundred shows WWII China that fought back

SINGAPORE – The two best movies this week come from Asian neighbours, but the subject matter could not be more different: One is a fun zombie romp, the other a serious depiction of a battle celebrated in Chinese history.

In South Korea, zombies do not fool around. As the sleeper hit Train To Busan (2016) showed, the undead there are fast and crafty, unlike the shuffling hordes seen in American films.

#Alive (M18, 98 minutes, Netflix, 4 stars) sticks to the South Korean tradition of hyperactive zombies. They will need to be to make a meal of Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in), a video-game addict who finds himself alone in his apartment when the apocalypse strikes.

What follows is a uniquely Korean version of survivor format: We have seen Americans making forts of supermarkets, malls and Mexican bars to fend off monsters. Often, guns – usually many – are involved.

But in this near-perfect blend of satire of survival drama, the lonely and petrified gamer must now play a version of the game in which the player explores the surroundings while picking up makeshift weapons, tools and food.

Who knew that zombie films could be as inventive and nerve-wracking as this, despite there not being a dozen characters with backstories to care about?

The hordes coming for the heroes in The Eight Hundred (NC16, 149 minutes, opens Sept 10, 3.5 stars) are Japanese troops intent on eliminating a stubborn pocket of resistance.

This is an obviously patriotic reenactment of events, but then which war movie is not? Lone Survivor (2013), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and American Sniper (2014) are all deeply patriotic, but in a manner that feels comfortable and easier to digest.

That lesson – show, don’t tell – has not been lost on the makers of this drama re-enacting a pivotal moment in Chinese history.

Near the end of 1937, a decision was made by the Chinese military to make a stand at the Sihang Warehouse in Shanghai, following months of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.

The film’s title refers to the name eventually given to the men and women involved in the fight.


The Eight Hundred stars Wang Qianyuan (left) and Jiang Wu. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

This action-oriented ensemble piece features powerful performances from actors like Wang Qianyuan and Jiang Wu, who play country folk asking if they are suckers for sticking around to fight when others have fled.

It serves as a big-budget corrective to myths about war generated by Western cinema, such as the idea that Asians stood by to watch while Westerners fight their battles.

As the film reveals, from 1931 to 1945, Japan’s brutal slog across China soaked up more than half its total troop strength, with many battles being standoffs like the one at the Sihang Warehouse.

Like that battle, the events in the classic 1911 children’s book The Secret Garden have been adapted for the screen several times.

The latest attempt, The Secret Garden (PG, 100 minutes, opens Sept 10, 2.5 stars) moves the time period forward a few decades, but makes more profound updates to its themes.

Mary (Dixie Egerickx) lives in India with her parents, but following the turbulence of the Partition – the division of British India into two independent states, India and Pakistan – in 1947, she is left an orphan and brought to the creepy estate of high-strung uncle Archibald (Colin Firth).

What follows is an exploration of trauma -Mary’s has to do with abandonment, while Archibald grapples with family losses of his own. The modern psychological insight sits alongside fantasy elements taken from the book, including the magical garden of the title.

Director Marc Munden deploys light realistic horror when portraying inner demons and then switches to Victorian-era whimsy to show the healing process. The result is not only tonally uneven, it is also glib.

Other films opening this week but not reviewed include the Taiwanese romantic drama Do You Love Me As I Love You (PG13, 109 minutes, opens Sept 10), which stars Chen Yu, Tsao Yu Ning and Patricia Lin as good friends caught in a love triangle.

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