JULY 28, 2016
I'm sure there ARE some, but as far as HMAD (and thus, my memory) is concerned, I've never seen a traditional, non-comedic zombie film out of Asia until now. Train To Busan takes the usual "band of strangers" zombie movie concept and applies it to a fast-moving train, and takes the concept quite seriously - there are a few character-based lines that are funny, but otherwise it's more dramatic than "fun". It didn't even really dawn on me until the zombies really started appearing en masse that I had never seen a Korean (or Chinese, or Japanese, etc) film like it before, when I tried thinking of how others had depicted their own undead and then realized that I had nothing to really compare it to. Again, I'm sure there are some others I just missed, but overall the film I kept recalling was World War Z.
And that turned out to be apt, because I also realized (a bit later) that the film was clearly PG-13, or at least the South Korean equivalent of it (turns out it was K-15, which would be like the PG-15 rating we've often pushed for but will seemingly never get). There's a lot of action in the film, and our cast is reduced to a very small number by the end, but it's mostly splatter-free (95% of the film's blood is either smeared on a wall or on a surface wound) and the deaths are usually played in the "they are swarmed and pulled down out of frame" way, if not off-screen entirely. As for the zombies, none of them get those sort of classic deaths you cheer for - no one has any really destructive weapons (why would they? Most of them were just on their way to work or whatever) so a few baseball bats courtesy of a traveling high school team are all they really have at their disposal - Dead Rising it is not. Even the film's biggest asshole character, when zombified, gets a pretty mild death as opposed to the crowd-pleasing (read: gory and violent) version you would expect from a big zombie film.
But that's (mostly) fine, it's not a knock on it really. It's not like we're starved for that sort of thing - it's more just a heads up for those who might think they're in for a bloodbath. Instead it's more of a survival adventure in a way - our hero Sok-woo is a generic absentee dad (he missed a recital AND got her a dud gift for her birthday - way to double down on the cliches, movie) who is taking his young daughter to see his ex-wife in Busan. Naturally, the film will show him learn to be a real dad, care about what really matters, and all that stuff. It's not exactly the most original character, but it works well enough when placed in context with another passenger, a man whose wife is pregnant and is trying to be the best dad ever already. They meet when Sok-woo is scrambling through train cars with his daughter and shuts the door behind him, momentarily trapping the couple with zombies in the other car. After some hesitation he lets them in, but the damage is done - the other guy is pissed at him and proceeds to call him "Asshole" or "Douche" throughout the rest of the film.
However, the tone of how he says these things changes - he never calls him by his real name I think, but the insult almost becomes a term of endearment as the film proceeds, as the two save each other more than once and fight alongside each other until the end (the end of one of their lives, I mean - not the end of the movie. More on that soon.), giving the film much of its overall appeal. The other guy (named Sang Hwa) is also the film's resident badass, fighting off most of the zombies himself and getting the best action moment when he swiftly grabs a riot shield while running for the train and uses it to bash some ghouls aside. It's possibly the one real drawback of the limited rating - you know he woulda torn one apart with his bare hands if the censors would allow it. Sok-woo is our main character, but Sang Hwa is the guy you'd want the action figure of, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one hoping for his survival more than they were for Sok-Woo's. The actor was in Nameless Gangster, which I saw at the same cinema (the CGV in LA, which plays Korean films as well as some American ones with Korean subs), and I hope I see him in future ventures - he's got great presence.
As for the other characters, it's a pretty stock set - the young lovers, an elderly pair (sisters, in this case), and, of course, a gigantic asshole in a suit who causes several deaths while selfishly protecting himself. Luckily, we don't spend too much time getting to know these people before the outbreak - they each get a quick beat to distinguish them from the extras, but they're all on even ground when the zombies start attacking, making it hard to tell who will die first/become a second main character/etc. The character development comes mostly out of how they act accordingly once their lives are on the line, and the situation is too frantic for them to stop and chat all that often. However, I wish the screenplay had taken the time they spend on Sok-woo's job problems and either cut it out entirely or given it to some of the others, because this stuff is very unnecessary. I don't know if it's a bad translation issue or if these scenes were left over from an earlier draft (or even longer cut of the film), but Sok-woo repeatedly calls into work and gets updates about what cities are safe or quarantined, and also their company's possible connection to what is going on. He's an investment banker, so unless they bought stock in Zombie-Co or something, I can't quite piece together how he is in any way responsible for it. And even if he was, it doesn't really matter to the narrative - there's no attempt at a "cure" or even a bit where people wonder where they came from (they DO refer to them as zombies, however), so it's just needless, go-nowhere exposition that the 118 minute film didn't need.
And that's the other thing - the movie's a bit too long. I was sure that they would eventually stop and get off the train for a bit, because nearly all of these vehicular movies do that (Con Air, Under Siege 2... hell even Speed keeps cutting back to Jeff Daniels at the police station), and also they had the zombie problem contained into a few cars so obviously something had to happen for them to bust out again. But there are actually THREE scenes of the train stopping and our characters getting off slowly, looking around to check for imminent danger and seeking a new shelter (or train, in one case). The appeal is being trapped on a moving vehicle, so stopping three times to get off (one's at the end, to be fair, but it's a lengthy sequence until credits roll) weakens the high-octane feel they're going for. Plus, the first time they get off is the best - they're told to stop where the military will be waiting to bring them to safety (actually quarantine), and make their way from the track through the station down to the place where the military is waiting, only to discover they've all been infected - resulting in a mad rush back to the train. Here's where we get chaos, hero moments, even a few scares - leaving very little for the 2nd stop to introduce beyond a bit of destruction. Reworking this stuff and giving the film one big detour in the middle before getting back on the train and staying there until it was time for the film to wrap up would have improved it overall, I think. It even robs the film of a chunk of its emotional impact, because a major character dies in a sacrificial moment, something that should be paving the way for the big finale, but it's like, barely over halfway through the movie as it turns out, and later someone else dies in almost the exact same way/context, so we should be sad but I'm sitting there thinking "I've already seen this." The very end had me getting choked up because of my now-standard dad traumas (it also swiped a beat from Armageddon for good measure), but had it come closer to the film's other big moving moment, the movie would be a knockout instead of merely "solid".
They got the zombies dead right though. I mentioned World War Z earlier, and they're used in similar ways during the more hectic action scenes - during one of the rushes back to the train two swarms of them collide like waves, causing a pileup with some at the top just kind of tumbling their way back on their feet to pursue their food. There's a terrific bit late in the film where they form almost a sort of net for the others to clamber across - it's such a cool visual, and justifies the stops (for a movie about zombies on a train, its three best zombie moments occur outside), at least in the moment. I also liked how the zombies 'work' here - they're blind, and almost shut down when its dark (train tunnels providing such moments), plus they move in a very spastic manner that gives them a creepier vibe than the average rotting corpse. None of them stand out (except the humans we got to know before they turned zombie, obviously), which is the right way to go about it - they don't distract away from the heroes. If this movie had a line of toys, it'd be of the human, not "Punk Zombie" or "Nurse Zombie" or whatever the hell.
The film is doing quite well in its US run (it's the first of the CGV movies I've noticed on the box office chart), already nearing the top of Well Go USA's all-time chart for domestic releases, and apparently broke some record or other in Korea, so clearly its finding its audience all over, which is great. I've mentioned before that I'm baffled about how few major zombie movies there are in this day and age - and what few there are tend to be comedic (like last fall's underrated Scouts Guide) or gimmicky (PPZ, though to be fair it wasn't as goofy as I expected). R rating or no, this was a legit zombie horror film with an emphasis on characters and even a sense of adventure - even if it didn't hit every mark well, I'd love to see more like that.
What say you?