Friday, 18 November 2016

Train To Busan (Busanhaeng)

Desperately Seeking Busan

Train To Busan (Busanhaeng)
2016 South Korea Directed by Sang-ho Yeon
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Very, very light spoilers... but, you know, how spoilery can it be? It’s a zombie movie.

Train To Busan is a film I’d heard was pretty good from feedback about this year’s FrightFest screening (I only went to one FrightFest movie this year, as reviewed here) and I was really up for seeing this when it opened in a very limited number of cinemas in London for Halloween weekend. Alas, it was the week where I fell painfully ill and I not only missed this little gem but I also, and this really upset me, had to miss the John Carpenter concert. So yeah, I was a little gutted to say the least. However, when I was sufficiently recovered a couple of weeks later, there were still one or two screenings of the film playing in the Central Picturehouse cinema in London... so I at least got to see this one eventually.

Now, in most other years I would be happily saying this is the best zombie movie anybody has made for a few years now but, while this movie is pretty cool, this is the same year that the incredible and easily instant zombie classic The Girl With All The Gifts came out (as reviewed here) so I would have to say that this little gem runs second place in the 2016 zombie stakes. However it’s still pretty amazing and I was so glad I got to see this in the cinema.

The film is by a director, Sang-ho Yeon, who seems to have worked exclusively in the animation field before the debut of this, his first live action feature film. As such, it would be a little too easy to pick up on the stylistic nuances of this movie and hail them as a crossover from his usual medium. However, I’d have to say that I didn’t see anything unusually stylised about the movie apart form, maybe, the choreography of the zombies when they die and transform into the undead... which looks quite spectacular and which seems all done through the movement of the actors’ bodies. So, yeah, nothing about this movie gives away or hints at the past movies of this director as far as I’m concerned... not that I’ve actually seen any of his other work. People better versed in his body of work will probably be able to cite his directorial signature in the movie but, alas, I have only Train To Busan to go on.

But it’s a pretty good movie to begin with in terms of looking at this director, I think.

The plot is of a divorced father who is taking his young daughter to see her mother, early one morning, on the train to Busan and it just happens to coincide with a zombie outbreak. The film starts off with an unexpected incident of animal road kill which sets up the plot and then we get the set up with the daughter and her father. Then the film becomes a road movie set on a train as the world around the train devolves into zombie chaos very quickly and the passengers have to try and navigate themselves out of trouble and back on the train, when it makes ‘emergency rescue stops’... only to find their cavalry has already been defeated by plagues of zombies wherever they arrive. And that’s all the plot you need or get in this one.

One of the things about the specific sub genre of horror which is the modern zombie film is that they are almost never scary. There are a few exceptions I can think of but, for the most part, they are usually only body count, action horror movies and, frankly, I’m fine with that. Scary would be good but the fun of the action on these kinds of things is also entertaining so you don’t hear any complaints from me. Train To Busan is no exception to this rule, it has to be said. You won’t exactly find anything terrifying about this one, I think... especially if you’re already a fan of the genre. That being said, well done to the director for having some excitingly staged set pieces which do, on the other hand, give a feeling of genuine suspense... such as an elongated stealth rescue from carriage to carriage, trying to find the way through the zombie hordes. Oh yeah, there are zombies on the train too folks and it gets a bit hairy quite a lot of the time. Another artfully staged sequence comes near the end and involves a small group of people trapped between two tilted, delicately balance (but not for long) train carriages about to come crashing down on them, one of which is on fire and both of which have hordes of zombies about to push their way through the windows and explode onto the survivors. It’s pretty intense stuff and, although the film is less than scary, it will certainly have you on the edge of your seat, that’s for sure.

I remember once reading something by Kevin Smith where he was talking about the shooting of Dogma and how hard it is to actually shoot in a train carriage. Assuming Sang-ho Yeon actually did shoot in a train carriage as opposed to a break away set, my hats off to him. He manages to get some amazing and fluid tracking shots going on in this film and it makes for some cracking cinema.

One of the possible problems for some audiences is that zombie and horror movies, and especially disaster movies, which this kind of crosses over into (it’s almost like watching The Cassandra Crossing but with the cast populated by undead creatures, in that respect) is that they can easily fall into cliché and, to be brutally honest. Train To Busan seems to do almost every cliché in the book. We have the father trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter. We have the friendly guy who starts off hating him and then becomes his comrade in arms against the zombie menace. We have the schoolgirl and schoolboy who are just about to find love with each other before they are confronted with a survival situation and...  we also have the shrewd business man who is just trying to save himself at the expense of everyone else and who diverts the popular opinion away from the actual people trying to do some good and becomes their enemy... before the even more obvious thing happens to him. It’s all in here but, honestly, I didn’t mind it a bit because a) the director and actors manage to pull it off very competently and with a clear understanding of the limitations of the genre rules and b) there was enough of the other zombie action set pieces happening that it was all much more distracting from any over ripe dramatic situations so... yeah, like I said... I had no problem with it.

And one of the most amazing things were the zombies themselves. Whenever somebody dies in this movie and becomes a zombie, they go through a transformation where their body contorts to unnatural angles, like rigor mortis is setting in and then declining in a rapid manner which causes their bodies to pop up and about... before they go on their blood lust rampage. There’s one guy I can remember who had his right arm firmly angled behind the back of his head and way past the other shoulder and I wondered if he was a contortionist who had dislocated his shoulder or whether this element had been CGI’d on later. One thing’s for sure, and this was very refreshing, is that the actors playing the zombies don’t just shuffle... or in this case run... along not caring much about what they are doing. They all look like they’re trying really hard to bring some kind of feral, basic instinct to the actions of their characters and I really appreciated the effort even the smaller extras were putting into this. Truly a great piece of zombie film-making here.

And that’s about all I’ve got right now, on this one. My only other slight complaint with Train To Busan would be that there’s a scene near the end involving the death of one of the main protagonists that just gets overtly syrupy and sentimental... a good deal more than was necessary, I thought. However, I can easily overlook this because it’s such a great little movie and it should certainly be lurking near the top of any zombie lover's ‘to watch’ list. I know I’m hoping to revisit this film sometime next year on blu ray and, all I will conclude here is that, if you are a lover of the genre, then you should really have a good time with this ‘zombies on a train’ action movie. So definitely look this one up.

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