Just had your top ten favourite zombie movies engraved in stone? Better get your chisel out! Just had ’em tattooed on your back? It’s back to the clinic and a spot of laser treatment for you, then…
During the noughties, when I was writing a regular DVD review column for Dark Side magazine, I was required to spend a lot of time watching J-Horror… K-Horror… all things contemporary Far Eastern had become very popular. Not with me, I have to say. It’s not that these films are badly made or anything (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “much anticipated” Creepy struck me as a very slick piece of work when I caught it at last year’s Mayhem Festival in Nottingham, even as it was lulling me off to sleep)… and invariably they piss all over their inevitable, blanded-out Hollywood remakes… it’s just that doomed alt.schoolgirls with sinister stuff coming out of their TV sets don’t particularly do anything for me. Something, though, must have seeped out of my own TV and infiltrated my seminal vesicles at a crucial moment, as young Freudette is just bonkers about this stuff.
Writer / director Sang-ho Yeon’s achievement is to expand K-Horror beyond its accustomed claustrophobic chamber horror confines and into the best episode of the Demons franchise that Dario Argento never produced, in which – after a toxic spill from a biotech installation has reduced much of South Korea’s population to hyperactive flesh-eating ghouls – a trainload of Seoul commuters attempt to make it to the government hold out at Busan.
No, Mr Yeon (or mister Sang-ho, depending on which Koreanologist you consult) didn’t exactly burn the midnight oil coming up with an original scenario but it’s the furious inventiveness with which he concocts new scrapes for his characters to overcome that will keep you riveted for the duration of the ride… that, plus the fact that these characters are so well written and performed, you actually care about what’s going to happen to them. Asian film makers are particularly good at this, of course… I still curse Takashi Miike for establishing Ryo Ishibashi’s character as such a likeable guy in Audition (1999) before unleashing that disturbed girl on him.
Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is the hard-working salary man who’s been neglecting his cute daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) and is trying to make amends by taking her to see her mother (who he’s in the process of divorcing) in Busan. When the biotoxic shit hits the fan he forms an unlikely dynamic duo with taciturn, salt-of-the-Earth tough guy Song-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), who has pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) in tow.
In between fighting off zombies they get in a lot of angsting over the right things to do in terms of family and your fellow man, in stark contrast to both the feral legion of deadites and Yon-suk (Eui-sung Kim), the selfish corporate big wig who’s not above using innocent dupes to decoy his attempted escape (if you remember Fernando Sancho’s corrupt mayor in Amando De Ossorio’s Return Of The Evil Dead, 1973, you’ll know what kind of a sleazebag we’re talking about here.)
Train To Busan (2016) is that rarest of things, a high-octane, suspenseful action movie with a sense of proportion. It’s a violent zombie film that isn’t particularly gory (the spastic zombies are plenty scary looking and blood flows freely as they get stuck into their prey but there’s none of the expected unfurling intestines) and uses its CGI sparingly, to great effect.
That a zombie movie could be simultaneously so hard-hitting and so subtle is a revelation… I loved the fact. for instance that the transformation of the protagonist’s mother into a zombie is rendered not by visual pyrotechnics but the coarsening of her conversation during a phone call. As for Seok-woo’s climactic scene of redemption… yes, I wept ( I am, after all, “the biggest fucking cry-baby in fandom”!)
Bonus materials comprise a 15 minute “making of” featurette from which one gleans how harmonious and hard-working the shoot was (“discipline is a vehicle for joy” in the sagacious words of Robert Fripp) and two tasters (trailer and brief excerpt) from Yeon’s prize-winning animated prequel, Seoul Station.
Undoubtedly Train To Busan will piss all over the inevitable, blanded-out Hollywood remake that’s allegedly (and sadly) in the works.