Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Train to Busan: Yeon Goes Live Action, but Stays Zombie

Busan is home to one of Asia’s most important film festivals. It happens to be a fest with a large midnight section, so they are probably no strangers to zombies. According to rumors, Busan handled the unthinkable catastrophe better than most Korean regional governments. Unfortunately, there are several train cars loaded with even more shuffling undead headed straights towards the city in Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For those keeping score at home, TTB takes place one day after the events of Yeon’s animated zombie film, Seoul Station. The morning news is filled with mysterious reports of violent riots erupting, but the average citizenry is still unaware a full scale zombie apocalypse has broken out. Super-busy fund manager Seok-woo proceeds to take his unhappy young daughter Su-an to visit her mother in Busan, exactly as planned. Obviously, if any zombies get in, a speeding commuter train will be a terrible place to be cornered: a confined space, packed with people, but no guns.

Of course, one manages to jump on at the last minute, along with uninfected shellshock man. By the way, these are not slow zombies we are talking about. They happen to be really darn fast. As usual for Yeon’s films, crisis brings out the worst in humanity, especially the scummy transit executive Yong-suk. Despite his every-man-for-himself instincts, Seok-woo will start working with a handful of passengers to survive. The audience will especially care about working class hardnose Sang-hwa, his mega-pregnant wife Sung-kyung, high school baseball player Young-guk, and cheerleader, Jin-hee. Yes, they do have baseball bats, which will be put to good use.

So basically, TTB is like Under Siege 2, but with zombies instead of Eric Bogosian. Yeon unleashes a massive undead beatdown, but it never feels CGI’ed. Those zombies pile-ups look as real as you’re ever going to want to see them. There is wide-ranging wreckage and a good deal of gore, but the human emotions are also legit. There are several character sacrifices—and they are always heavy moments. Frankly, Yeon’s only real mistake comes in killing off too many major characters. While we respect him for respecting the principles of zombie cinema, TBB deserves to become a franchise, which would be easier with a few more returning faces.

Ma Dong-seok (a.k.a. Don Lee) is just plain awesome as the brawling Sang-hwa. His star has been steadily rising, but TTB should send it into the stratosphere. Likewise, An So-hee scores breakout turn as the resilient Jin-hee. Gong Yoo and Kim Su-an are certainly believable and ultimately quite poignant as the dysfunctional father and daughter, while Kim Eui-sung chews the scenery like Pac-Man as the odious Yong-suk. Yet, Yeon chooses to humanize him at the most unlikely moment. That is not like the frequently didactic filmmaker, but it sure keeps viewers off balance.

Yeon does not exactly reinvent zombie natural history, per se, but he gives the genre a few new tweaks. However, the pedal-to-the-metal execution will leave zombies fans in awe. It is easily the best zombie film since Sabu’s Miss Zombie, which was an entirely different cinematic creature. Very highly recommended for genre enthusiasts, Train to Busan opens this Friday (7/22) in New York, at the AMC Empire.