Saturday, 13 October 2018

October Horrors # 7:
Train To Busan
(Sang-ho Yeon, 2016)

So, seems like this one pretty much knocked it outta the park as far as South Korean zombie movies go, right?

I actually first became aware of ‘Train to Busan’ a few years ago, when a freelance work assignment required me to do a bit of research on international box office figures. Scanning through the resulting info, I was surprised to see that a home-grown horror film had recently become the highest grossing film of all time in South Korean cinemas. I mean, not just the highest grossing South Korean film in South Korea – the highest grossing film from any country. Avatar, Avengers, Star Wars, whatever – ‘Train To Busan’ smoked them all in the domestic market.

Not bad for a movie that, on the face of it, sticks pretty faithfully to the post-Romero template of grim, zombie-initiated societal collapse, and an achievement that would surely have been unthinkable for this kind of film twenty years ago.

I’m sure I am far from the first person to reflect on how peculiar it is that the idea of malevolent, reanimated corpses eating the raw flesh of the living has become an acceptable subject for mainstream entertainment in the 21st century, but in many ways, ‘Train to Busan’ feels like a new crowning achievement for this trend.

For ‘Train to Busan’ is, make no mistake, a mainstream film. The use of a post-‘28 Days Later’ infection paradigm allows the story’s unimaginably hellish scenario to be portrayed with a bare minimum of gore and bodily corruption, whilst viewers are encouraged to sympathise and/or identify with the central characters through such positive, universal sentiments as concern for family, friendship, co-operation and self-sacrifice.

The complicated networks of sadism, cynicism and voyeuristic prurience that usually define the relationship between viewers, filmmakers and on-screen characters in horror films are never really put into operation here, whilst the ‘monsters-from-the-id’ psychological transgressions that are traditionally key to the appeal of the genre are likewise scrubbed off the film’s squeaky clean surface until only a trace memory of their presence remains.

But, if there are to be mainstream zombie films, I’d nevertheless argue that ‘Train to Busan’ provides a pretty good model for how they can be done well.

I’d not sure how to best put this, but… that aforementioned lack of cynicism actually feels very refreshing. After a few decades in which even the most innocuous Hollywood action-adventure films (and, by extension, their Asian and European equivalents) seem to have been populated by wise-cracking, self-interested loud-mouths, there is something very appealing about following a group of people who are for the most part quite reasonable, soft-spoken and quote-unquote “normal” as they team up to deal with catastrophic, life-threatening circumstances.

In this respect, I can easily see why the film proved so appealing to a general audience – particularly in South Korea, where viewers could presumably relate even more directly to the surroundings and pre-zombie day-to-day concerns of their on-screen surrogates.

It helps too that the film is extremely well-made. Performances are generally convincing and character stuff is well-handled, despite touches of the hand-wringing familial melodrama that seems to be a ubiquitous part of Korean popular culture, and though not as traumatic as it may have been in a “proper”, full strength genre film, the sense of sudden, near-total apocalypse, and the eerie dislocation felt by passengers trapped in the orderly, hermetic environment of a high-speed, inter-city train whilst it unfolds, is very well conveyed.

Even in the era of smart phones and roaming wi-fi hotspots, the confused, second-hand fragments we receive of different locales being ‘quarantined’, of defences of cities having ‘failed’, and of more and more phonecalls to relatives and business contacts ringing out, dead, is extremely effective, building a very modern sense of slow-building, gut-tightening panic that I’d imagine must feel recognisable to anyone who has been unfortunate enough to find themselves adjacent to a terrorist atrocity, or a sudden outbreak of civil disobedience or warfare, in recent years.

Setting the film on a train, it must be said, is also a bit of a masterstroke. I say this for no other reason than that action-adventure scenarios set in or around trains have always had great cinematic potential, as has been proven whenever the necessary factors of budgetary resource and filmmaking talent have aligned – and, whilst I’ll refrain from running through my extremely long list of “GREAT FILMS (OR PARTS OF FILMS) SET ON TRAINS”, I can happily confirm that ‘..Busan’ earns a deserved spot on said list, with its litany of life-and-death struggles with door locks, detached carriages, switching yard derailments and runaway engines feeling both satisfyingly exhilarating and… weirdly old fashioned, in a sense.

(I’m apt to wonder for instance whether the drivers on South Korea’s latest generation of high speed trains really communicate with their central control room solely via a crackly old radio set, as is portrayed here, but no matter – as far as the movies go, this is great stuff.)

Zombie-wise meanwhile, the blank-eyed, hissing, running/infection-spreading creatures of ‘Train to Busan’ may not add much to the sub-genre’s rich legacy, but where the film really distinguishes itself horror-wise is in portraying such a sheer mass of them. Obviously reflective of fears arising from life in the densely populated cities of South-East Asia, these swarming zombies are repeatedly seen smashing through plexi-glass windows in their hundreds - an undifferentiated tide of biting flesh - whilst the complex, multi-level geometry of the station buildings in which much of the action takes place even leads to several moments in which the confined creatures crash through a wall of glass and literally pour down from the skies - a veritable tidal wave of mindlessly animated, chomping death machines.

As alarming and impressive as all this is however, this complete de-humanisation of the zombie threat nonetheless feeds into what most horror fans will have realised fairly soon into the film’s run-time – namely, that ‘Train to Busan’ is far more of an action-adventure movie (disaster survival sub-category) than it is a horror picture.

By the time we reach the scene in which a small group of mis-matched (all male) characters use improvised weaponry and armour to fight their way through several zombie-infested train carriages in order to rescue their (female) dependants from a toilet cubicle elsewhere on the train, it had occurred to me that the threat our heroes were facing could basically be anything – aliens, Nazis, piranhas, lions, dinosaurs, whatever – and the drama would still play out in pretty much the same way. (1)

That’s not necessarily a criticism – it’s a great sequence, perhaps the highlight of the movie overall, superbly edited and full of rousing heroism, hair-raising suspense and Hawksian male bonding, and I was thoroughly on-board with it whilst watching.

In retrospect though, I miss the spikes. I miss the blunt nastiness, the pessimism, the misanthropy and raging despair. The splintered doorframe and raised gardening trowel of our shared zombie history is nowhere to be found here, my friends.

Far more so than the gore and nastiness though, ‘Train to Busan’s greatest loss in retooling the zombie movie to fit mainstream expectations comes from its jettisoning of the questioning of authority that was such a key element of the formula as defined by George Romero.

That’s not to say that ‘Train..’ is mere mindless entertainment, or that it lacks a social conscience, but it is notable I think that the film’s social commentary in confined solely to the level of individual (rather than societal) morality.

A running dialogue continues throughout the film concerning the respective merits of self-preservation vs collective responsibility, whilst, more specific perhaps to the film’s South Korean identity, Dong-seok Ma’s two-fisted working class hero gives Yoo Gong’s salaryman protagonist a hard time about the “parasitic” nature of his employment as a hedge fund manager, and Gong’s inability to maintain a functional family life alongside the demands of his job is also a central (if not exactly original) concern. (2)

All of which is well and good, but in the meantime, there is no real feeling here that the authorities (or indeed the evident inequalities of the nation’s ultra-capitalist society) are in any way to blame for the chaos and mass death resulting from the zombie outbreak. Though cities may be overwhelmed, misleading advice given to survivors, and soldiers and police may be transformed en masse into zombie predators, at no point do we get the impression that the powers-that-be are doing anything other than their very best to cope with this sudden and unprecedented cataclysm.

This is a far cry indeed from the bleak – and far more convincing - vision of confusion, cruelty and incompetence that Romero brought to the screen in ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘The Crazies’. To my mind, ‘Train to Busan’ suffers greatly from the absence of this perspective, even whilst I appreciate that such a pessimistic approach may have been just too much for viewers in a nation as geo-politically precarious as South Korea -- at least assuming that the filmmakers’ (very UN-horror movie-like) intentions were indeed to avoid giving their viewers sleepless nights, and to instead encourage them to bring their friends and neighbours along to the next screening.

As a movie then, ‘Train to Busan’ is well made, thoroughly engaging and great entertainment – it’s well worth a watch, and you’ll probably want to invite your own friends and neighbours around to watch it a second time too. As a film however (and most particularly as a horror film)…. it leaves something to be desired.


(1) I couldn’t really find a way to crow-bar this into the main text, but another specifically Korean element of ‘Train to Busan’ arises from the fact that it’s action is all *just a wee bit patriarchal*, in a manner that might seem slightly jarring to contemporary Western viewers. As well as the aforementioned scene in which the heroic dudes battle to rescue their women from the toilet, this reaches its nadir at the film’s conclusion, when – hilariously – a close-to-death male hero uses his last breaths to try to instruct a woman on how to drive a train (something he has no experience of himself); “now, I think this must be the brake..”, etc.

(2) Dong-seok Ma, incidentally, kicks ass in this movie. Hugely likeable, he reminded me somewhat of Shintaro Katsu, and I will happily watch any further films in which he stomps around looking sad and punching people.


Ian Smith said...

To be fair, I think there is some anti-establishment anger in 'Train to Busan', though it's done with an East Asian focus not on the authorities themselves but on the hierarchical / patriarchal system where you have to unquestioningly kowtow to your older but not necessarily wiser superiors. This is embodied in Kim Eui-sung's company-executive character, who makes obviously immoral and self-serving decisions but whose orders are unthinkingly obeyed by the train attendant and train driver (with the ultimate result that both of them, and a lot of other people, get killed). I imagine at least some of this was inspired by the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry off Donggeochado in 2014, which caused some 300 deaths and was blamed on the actions of the captain, crew and ferry company.

That said, 'The Host' the film is not!

Incidentally, Yeon Sang-ho's animated prequel to 'Train to Busan', 'Seoul Station', is worth checking out because it does take a more damning approach to the authorities and their treatment of the less fortunate in society. There's a lot in it about the plight of the homeless people living around the station when the zombie outbreak happens. Indeed, Choi Gwi-hwa's homeless man in 'Train to Busan' is probably the main thread linking the two films.

Ben said...

These are very good points Ian, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

I've not watched the prequel yet, but, now that I've been made aware of it, I would definitely like to do so if I can.

Actually, since writing the review above a few weeks ago, I have spoken to several friends about the film, and have watched it a second time... and I now think that many of my initial criticisms were quite unfair, and reveal a failure on my part to properly interpret certain aspects of the film the first time around.

In short, I now think it stands up as a far better film than this initial review would suggest.

When I get a chance after this October review marathon is over in fact, I'd really like to do a second update / amendment post on 'Train to Busan', looking at some different interpretations of the film...