Friday 30 September 2016

Train to Busan (South Korea 2016: Dir Yeon Sang-ho)

Zombie movies have been around for decades. The genre shows no signs of fading (in fact quite the opposite), so these days to keep things fresh filmmakers often approach such films with a view to exploiting their cross genre potential: so we’ve had the zombie romance movie, the zombie comedy, the zombie war film, the zombie animals attack movie…and now, courtesy of South Korea’s Yeon Sang-ho, we have the zombie disaster movie.

Seok Woo is a misanthropic financial investor with a failed marriage and a daughter, Soo-an, who spends time split between separated parents. You can tell that Seok Woo’s a bit of a meanie – he buys his daughter a present for her birthday that he’d already bought her earlier that year, and his ex-wife is listed on his phone as just that – ‘ex wife.’ He also categorises most of his business contacts on the same phone as ‘lemmings.’

Currently staying with dad but missing mum, Soo-an’s birthday wish is to take the train and visit her mother in Busan, and Seok Woo grudgingly agrees to alter his business schedule to accompany his daughter on the journey. But as the train pulls away from Seoul station, the city’s placed under lockdown following a viral outbreak throughout the country – unfortunately one of the last people to board is an early victim of the infection.

The rest of Train to Busan is a series of incredibly tense set pieces as the numbers of infected on the train rise exponentially, and the uninfected survivors attempt to stay alive until the train reaches Busan.
Director Sang-ho’s background is in animation, which is to the film's advantage as he stages the action really well, filling the screen with incident, and his wide shots of city devastation look stunning. The rise of the infected, pouring between train carriages and smashing through sheets of broken glass like swarms of insects, is both terrifying and relentless. And the infection spreads in seconds, providing that the zombie gets a decent bite in (of course key characters who become infected are only partly chomped, therefore taking much longer to turn, and fulfilling one of the great disaster movie staples, the long death scene). The action is enhanced no end by the zombies being of the very fast and incredibly athletic variety (is there any other type these days?), although they're not so bright, having a problem with door handles and darkness.

And talking of disaster movies, this film is full of steals from that genre. Stick thin characterisation at the beginning of the movie to establish the key players; evil ‘must-survive-at-any-cost’ businessman who’ll step on anyone to stay alive; final reel with major character change triggered by emotional epiphany; they’re all here. I did slightly take exception to little Kim Su-an ( who very convincingly plays Soo-an), not because she isn’t a terrific actress, but more that she spends the last twenty minutes of the film screaming and crying, which to me felt more than a little exploitative and rather unnecessary for a very young girl to be put through.

Critics have praised  this film for its combination of horror and heart tugging moments - personally I felt these elements, combined with the broad humour (also to be found in films like Joon Ho Bong's 2006 movie The Host) didn't quite gel. But really Train to Busan is all about the action. At two hours long it rarely flags, and Sang-ho escapes the limitations of a film set on one train by breaking up the set pieces, allowing the audience to recover themselves before the next slice of undead action. It’s nail biting stuff and, despite my slight concerns, really does breathe new life into the genre.

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