Tuesday 9 May 2017

Train to Busan (South Korea 2016: Dir Yeon Sang-ho) - notes from an introduction to the screening at Herne Hill Free Film Festival - 8 May 2017

South Korean Yeon Sang-ho, the director of tonight’s film Train to Busan, is one of the brightest hopes in eastern film making at the moment.

Born in Seoul in 1978, Yeon’s background is in animation. The stories behind his early films were written in notebooks while he was doing his military service, a difficult time for him, which included a spell in prison: these experiences fed into his first feature length animated movie, 2011’s King of Pigs, which dealt with the themes of bullying and poverty. In the following year he made an award winning short film, The Window, depicting violence in the military, and in 2013 his continuing political disillusionment inspired his next feature The Fake, about a cult religious leader who swindles a community out of compensation money paid to them because their village is to be submerged. Not for nothing did one critic describe these films as being “full of poignant stories targeted at the very heart of society.”

In 2015 the director developed a (sort of) prequel to tonight's film, Seoul Station (although confusingly this was released after Train to Busan). Asked for his inspiration Yeon said recently “...for a long time I have been wanting to depict society’s collective rage, and Seoul Station is the film where I can discuss it… I don’t think there is a specific moment or target for the people’s rage. Rather, it is more like a monolithic rage against big entities such as the nation.” The rage he’s referring to concerns the large numbers of homeless people who live in and around the station, who have become almost invisible to the rest of the city’s inhabitants – in the film it is within this group that the zombie infestation breeds. But don't worry - you don’t need to have seen Seoul Station to watch tonight's film, which is set set one day after the prequel ends.

Train to Busan, working title Busan Bound, is Yeon’s first live action movie.  Why move into live action after a career in animated films? Well it comes down to money really – the film has taken over $130 million at the box office, whereas his last two animated features took just a fraction of that – about $280,000.

This being the first Korean zombie movie, the director has cited mainly western movies as influences on the film, including the claustrophobic actioners of Paul Greengrass like United 93 (2006) and Captain Phillips (2013) and also ‘community under threat’ films such as Frank Darabont’s 2007 movie The Mist and John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009).

An overlooked influence is the disaster movie: Train to Busan is the arguably the world’s first zombie example of this – and why not? The genre lends itself to borrowing from others - we’ve had the zombie romance movie, zombie comedies, the zombie war film, and even zombie animals attack films (most recently in 2016’s Zoombies, about a virus that spreads through a safari park). Train to Busan uses the clichés of the disaster movie to tell the story: there’s the usual brief thumbnail setup to establish the key players; the ‘must-survive-at-any-cost’ businessman who’ll step on anyone to stay alive; the flawed but basically decent hero realising his inner humanity while struggling with a messy divorce; emotional final reel. They’re all present and correct, and of course what could be a better setting than a speeding train?

Yeon’s animation training shows on screen - he stages the action really well, filling the screen with incident, and many of his wide shots of city devastation look stunning. The zombies in the movie were choreographed by Park Ja-In (who also worked on the 2016 Korean movie The Wailing), but put aside all thoughts of Michael Peters helping Michael Jackson go through his moves in the ‘Thriller’ video - Ja-In choreographed about 20 to 30 actors at a time in her studio, where she designed all the stunning movement you’ll see in the movie.

Yeon is at heart a political film maker - this was more obviously to the fore in Seoul Station, but Train to Busan also shows its colours, albeit more subtly, in the class tensions on board the train and the inability of the government to deal with the developing crisis (and indeed to to be honest about their incompetence). Yeon recognises that Korean audiences expect to see realism in their films, together with humour and big set pieces. He achieves this brilliantly but never at the expense of his characterisations - the New York Times called the film “a public-transportation horror movie with a side helping of class warfare.” 

Train to Busan has been a massive success in Korea – the fifth highest grossing film in the country’s movie production history, taking nearly $135 million at the box office, playing to over 10 million moviegoers in Korea alone. Fans have been clamouring for a sequel which now looks like happening (working title Train to Busan 2), and the inevitable Hollywood remake has also been green lit with French company Gaumont sealing the deal. 

But will the director be back on board (pun very much intended)? Last month Yeon announced the production of a film called Psychokinesis, a dark comedy about an ordinary man who accidentally obtains superpowers and uses them to help his daughter and others around them, scheduled for release in 2018. After watching tonight's film I hope like me that you'll be very interested in any future project by this inspiring film maker.

Enjoy the film.

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