Thursday, March 30, 2017

Terminal Velocity: Train to Busan

Yoo Gong, with Soo-an Kim, in Train to Busan.

I’m so sick of zombie movies. They’re as played out as any genre can be, and I didn’t think that there was anything new to be done or said with them. Imagine my surprise, then, when South Korean zombie thriller Train to Busan was consistently hailed as one of the best films of 2016. I’ve made my love of Korean cinema pretty clear in the past, so it should go without saying that I was intrigued – and now that the film has landed on Netflix here in Canada, I finally got the chance to investigate.

The film, directed by Sang-Ho Yeon, has not changed my opinion on zombie movies. I still think that the dead rising to eat the living – though it’s been a worthy avenue for gory chills and social commentary for decades – has aged into a tired and tedious concept (which only becomes more absurd when the light of slick modern filmmaking and special effects is shone upon it). But I had a great time watching Train to Busan, and it was far less because of the subject matter and much more because it was simply a well-written, well-staged, and well-executed film. In effect, it’s a zombie flick for people who don’t really like zombie flicks – which means it was just what I wanted to see.

The plot is blissfully economical: a neglectful dad (Yoo Gong) escorts his daughter (Soo-An Kim) from Seoul to Busan to visit her mother. Dad and Mom have separated and he’s so busy with his job that he can’t make time to come to the kid’s recitals – but, begrudgingly, he agrees to take the morning off work to board the KTX train with her. Of course, this happens to be the morning that a zombie virus turns most of the human race into sprinting, flesh-hungry ghouls, and so their train ride becomes an intense race for survival as they contend with the infected on board, the rising tensions among the other surviving passengers, and their own broken relationship.

I’ve mentioned that, especially in the horror genre, Korean cinema tends to avoid the excessive gore that our media lean so heavily on in the West. Train to Busan is no exception; this is possibly the least violent zombie film ever made, in which we see the infected leap onto their victims and bury their faces into their necks, growling, but without the follow-up shot of the tearing flesh and spurting blood we’ve come to expect. In place of the thrills that come with horrible gore (which are most often fleeting and insubstantial anyway), Train to Busan offers strongly realized characters, emotional set-ups and payoffs, and tight pacing that make it one of the most thrilling zombie pictures I’ve ever seen, despite the fact that you don’t see any detached limbs or exposed viscera. The undead are covered in blood, sure, wiping it grotesquely over the glass door partitions between train cars as they mindlessly paw at the people on the other side – but you never really see blood actually come out of someone. It might seem like I’m harping too much on this point, but understanding this is crucial to understanding why Train to Busan clicked for me. It’s a zombie film that works without the gore. Imagine that!

Yu-mi Jung and Dong-seok Ma in Train to Busan.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the film is its dedication to its characters. Everyone – from the dad,to his daughter, to the teenage baseball team, to the quiet homeless man, to the cowardly railroad tycoon – is strongly characterized and well-acted. All of these characters, even the minor players, experience arcs of their own that are clearly established and paid off. (There’s even a bit of class warfare commentary tucked into the tycoon character, whose selfishness costs several other people their lives; when you learn that this is likely a jab at the Korean government for their mishandling of a real-life ferry disaster that cost the lives of almost 300 teenagers, the character takes on a much sharper edge.) My favourite of the bunch is the beefy dad-to-be played by Dong-seok Ma, whose top priority is keeping his pregnant wife (Yu-Mi Jung) out of danger. He steals scenes with his gruff, unapologetic pragmatism and his fearless strength, which is deployed mostly in the form of freight-train punches to the zombies in his way. He’s magnetic, and his relationship with his wife – who often admonishes him for his lack of social subtlety by throwing punches of her own – was the emotional core of the movie for me.

In addition to indulging in strong characterization, Train to Busan gets around its technical limitations by finding creative ways to stage its action sequences. There are far more memorable setpieces in this film – which is set almost entirely on a commuter train, I remind you – than in most other films of this stripe. On a budget purported to be in the range of $182,000 USD, Train to Busan has grossed over $80 million worldwide, and a significant part of why it’s attracted such a big audience is that it uses its relatively tiny budget to maximum effect. There are some pretty terrible-looking CG effects in the film, but they’re easy to overlook given the creativity of the staging in those scenes. Whether it’s a tense crawl along the overhead luggage racks to sneak past the zombies below, a race against time as a partially overturned train car leans closer and closer to crushing the people underneath (while the undead pile against the windows over their heads, the pressure slowly cracking the glass), or an all-out rock 'n’ roll brawl as our heroes bash their way from car to car, these sequences are uniformly exciting and comprehensible. That’s no mean feat, given such a small budget and such a limited setting for a film with World War Z-level aspirations. Train to Busan is easily three times the movie World War Z was, and that it succeeds against those odds makes it almost like an underdog rags-to-riches story.

Is Train to Busan actually one of the best films to come out of last year? No. But the odds were stacked against it in a year that gave us Moonlight, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Swiss Army Man, Manchester By The Sea, and so many others that would have topped any year’s lists all by themselves. Train to Busan isn’t an all-timer, but I’d pick it over almost any other recent zombie movie (or book, or comic, or television show, or whatever). It’s got pluck, intensity, and genuinely likeable characters. If you want the opposite – empty gore and a flat, boring cast – go watch The Walking Dead.
 – Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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