Train to Busan
Directed by: Sang-ho Yeon
Run time: 118 minutes
The Lowdown: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: A neglectful father, too-focused on work to properly care about his daughter’s needs, gets guilt-tripped into being a proper Dad for one day – the same day that an unknown contagion is unleashed, causing widespread infection and turning everyday folks into a horde of lethal, flesh-eating zombies.
The father is forced to truly become his child’s protector. Groups of strangers band together to fight back the horde. At least one selfish jackhole decides his life is worth more than anybody else’s. And most of the major characters die trying to protect someone they love.
This is not a new scenario. In fact, it’s more well-worn than the mat outside your front door. You’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times. Maybe the characters are different, but the end result is always the same.
And that’s the problem with most mainstream zombie movies today – they’re entirely predictable, which makes them a lot less scary than they used to be.
Well, boys and girls, BVB is here to spread the good word about a new zombie movie that doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s pretty spectacular, both in its ambition and its execution.
Sang-ho Yeon’s debut live-action feature Train to Busan is South Korea’s answer to World War Z, only it’s better and more action-packed.
That’s right, we said South Korea, which means this movie is subtitled. Get over it. Put on your reading glasses. Trust us. You won’t be reading a lot. This is a pure popcorn movie filled with moments so intense and so edge-of-your-seat thrilling that you may have to remind yourself to breathe.
Train to Busan excels by giving new life to Asian genre cinema. It deftly avoids the typical pitfalls that make a lot of import films so difficult for American audiences to absorb.
There isn’t a whole lot of comic relief, which is a relief in and of itself. A lot of Asian films try too hard to be funny at bizarre, awkward moments in the story where a western movie would just blaze ahead with full-throttle action. Like many Asian blockbusters, there is a heavy focus on family dynamics, but thankfully, these tug-at-your-heartstrings moments never become treacly or distracting. And finally, Train to Busan doesn’t get swept up in a slew of subplots. It’s a straight-forward narrative that races along at breakneck speed, much like the central KTX express train where most of the action takes place.
The premise is simple: Overworked business executive Seok Woo is boarding a train with his daughter Soo-an. He’s trying to be a good Dad for once and take his child to visit family. Just as they take their seats, a young woman races past the ticket taker and sneaks on-board. There’s something not right about her. And within minutes, we know why.
Train to Busan doesn’t waste a lot of time, and there’s a reason for that. Director Sang-ho Yeon has a fully-realized vision and he wants to get to the good stuff in a hurry. Boy howdy, does he ever. He offers up a master’s level primer in how to maximize every nook and cranny of his cramped and confined environment. From the empty space between train cars to the claustrophobic bathroom stalls to the freaking overhead luggage bins, there’s not an inch of this train that doesn’t come into play in bloody spades.
Within minutes, the woman who snuck on is revealed to be infected. And she quickly starts eating her way through the crew. Seok Woo and Soo-an, naturally, get separated. And small factions of terrified passengers begin to form tight-knit units to survive. That introduces brawny Sang Hwa, who is traveling with his pregnant wife. He and Seok Woo form an uneasy alliance that grows organically throughout the film. There’s a bad guy, of course – Yong-Suk, an executive with a rival train service, who selfishly whips up the crowd into a frenzy to keep themselves safe and block off part of the train from frantic, uninfected survivors like Seok Woo and Sang Hwa.
The train conductor uses his radio to learn that Busan is the only possible safe harbor left in South Korea, and he immediately sets course for there. Getting there, of course, won’t be easy.
Sang-ho Yeon creates inventive scenarios to amplify the anxiety for the passengers on-board as the KTX barrels along. In one masterful revision of typical zombie mythology, he utilizes darkness to provide a possible route for passengers to reach safety. Whenever the train travels through a tunnel, which happens often, the zombies all stop moving and become non-responsive, even if people are sneaking past them.
But Sang-ho Yeon doesn’t stop there. He lifts the action off the train for several incredible, breathtaking set pieces, including one extended sequence inside an abandoned train station filled with a literal tsunami of infected.
Train to Busan succeeds because it doesn’t try to reinvent the zombie wheel. It just streamlines the design.
It’s rare to find an overseas genre import that works this well. In the past few years, there have only been a handful, and most have hailed from South Korea, including I Saw the Devil and Snowpiercer.
So, get over your millennial angst and stop complaining about how all zombie/mass infected horde movies are all the same. It’s not cool to dis something just because it’s no longer the flavor of the month.
If you love gory practical effects, grade-A action and feeling your heart jackhammer in your chest while you sit in the dark and wonder who will survive, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.
Book your ticket to Busan today.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Not really.
Nudity – No.
Gore – Gratuitous and glorious.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – Duh, zombies.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
Ouija: Origin of Evil (Universal, 99 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Writer-director Mike Flanagan is not a household name, and that’s is a shame. The longtime independent horror director made his mark with 2011’s Absentia before generating buzz with his 2013 follow-up Occulus. But he’s been churning out some damn fine work in the past year with the Netflix original Hush, Before I Wake and his major studio sequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil. Let’s face it – for anyone who saw the first Ouija movie, based on the popular board game, there was zero reason that a sequel should have ever taken flight. It was an abysmal effort, a blatant cash grab devoid of scares and chock full of bad acting and ridiculous plot twists. I’m not sure what leverage Flanagan had, but he played it to the hilt in getting to do this film that is a sequel in name only. Flanagan steps back all the way to 1967 to create a period universe centered around a struggling single mother of two young girls who works as a psychic medium out of their house. It doesn’t take long for bad things to start creeping around the youngest child, Doris, who becomes a vessel for a malignant spirit to try and convince the mother and her paying clients that the child is using a Ouija board to legitimately communicate with deceased loved ones. The film is purposefully paced to allow the creep factor to organically ratchet, and Flanagan makes expert use of Lulu Wilson, the young actress playing Doris. She really is one of the most unnerving creepy kids in recent memory, and the effects – a healthy mix of practical and CGI – play well and provide multiple jolts. Flanagan has a penchant for slowly building to an explosive climax, and Ouija: Origin of Evil is no exception. The last 25 minutes contain more action than the first 74 minutes combined. It’s a calculated risk that pays off. This isn’t a great, OMG must-see horror movie, but it’s a nice little chiller that’s perfect for late night couch viewing in the dark.
The Girl on the Train (Universal, 112 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, this year’s Gone Girl literary adaptation, The Girl on the Train, thinks it’s way more crafty than it really is. There’s an unreliable narrator, a reeling alcoholic played perfectly by Emily Blunt, who is at odds with her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) and his new wife. There’s a tempting femme fatale (Haley Bennett) and her jealous, brutish husband (Luke Evans). And there’s a savvy police detective, a philandering therapist and more. As directed by Tate Taylor, The Girl on the Train hits all the right notes and does what it can with its convoluted plot (you should guess the killer’s identity well before the reveal), but the end result is still basically “Meh.”
Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 (Universal, 92 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): It has been 42 years since Roger Corman’s subversive, violent socio-political satire Death Race 2000 revved into theaters. In the interim, there was a 2008 reboot starring Jason Statham, which spawned two subpar sequels starring Luke Goss. None of those films paid any mind to Corman’s original vision, which imagined a world so numb to violence and political malfeasance (sound familiar?) that viewers would watch rapt with attention as drivers killed as many pedestrians, and each other, as possible. Now, on the eve of his 91st birthday, Corman has returned to produce a legitimate sequel to his 1975 cult classic. As directed and co-written by G.J. Echternkamp, Death Race 2050 is a mish-mash of action, humor and political and social commentary. It’s ridiculously silly at times, but it’s pure, classic Corman through and through. Death Race 2050 stars Manu Bennett (Deathstroke on Arrow), Malcolm McDowell (who is apparently trying to be the Samuel L. Jackson of genre actors) and former genre veterans like Yancy Butler. It may not be the best movie you’ve ever seen (and it’s really not), but I dare you to watch it all the way through and not have a smile on your face.
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