2016 was a banner year for horror cinema. Don't Breathe. Lights Out. The Conjuring 2. It's a mini-revival that seems to have kept on to 2017, what with the white-knuckler, Get Out, still snagging 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, far and away, my favorite in this stretch of horror goodness is very much Train to Busan, a 2016 summer release. You may not have heard of Train to Busan because it's a foreign movie, and some folks treat sub-titles like cooties. Any self-respecting gorehound will tell you some of the best horror movies are found overseas. Train to Busan murdered at the Asian box office. American film studios are trying like mad to acquire the rights, and I hope they don't get them. I don't see the sense in recreating what's already a masterpiece. The Raid movie agrees with me.
In a zombie setting, when you hear news of mysterious fish deaths at the reservoir or a "minor leak in the Biotech District," that's the cue to head for the hills. What's so tremendous about this movie is that it presents a strong emotional core. Focus is on the strained relationship between an inattentive father and his little girl. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a preoccupied fund manager. I guess he does care for his elementary school daughter Su-an (Su-an Kim), enough that he's willing to fight his ex-wife for custody of her. Except Seok-woo is a bad father, one who neglects his kid, misses her recitals, forgets her birthday... Follows a scene that demonstrates why it's a bonehead move to have your assistant buy the gift for your kid.
It's Su-an's birthday, and she guilt trips her dad into taking her on the bullet train so she could visit her mom in Busan. And, a bit later, maybe you blame the unobservant train attendant for allowing that one sickly-looking girl to sneak onboard.
Man, not even roadkill is safe in this movie. As the train barrels along on the first leg of its nightmarish ride, as it hurtles from the capital city of Seoul to the southern city of Busan, the camera gravitates towards the other passengers. And, for all the other reasons why this movie is so damn boss, it's absolutely the acting that makes us care about this movie. The characters are interesting and fully-realized. Standouts for me are the troubled father and daughter, the very pregnant wife (Jung Yu-mi) and her tough, working-class husband (Ma Dong-seok), and the selfish transportation CEO (Kim Eui-sung), this last guy gunning for the jackhole of the year award. I won't say too much about him, except I haven't hated a guy so much since Paul Reiser in Aliens. What a fink!
I can't believe this is the first live-action feature film Yeon Sang-ho has directed, but, apparently, he's more a veteran of anime cinema. Guys, this is a dynamic storyteller. He draws fantastic performances from his cast. What he does in ramping up the suspense is ridiculous. He makes full use of the confined spaces on the train, not only in building up and sustaining that sense of tinkle-in-the-pants panic but also in coming up with resourceful ways for the survivors to circumvent the walkers. Thankfully, several passengers are still thinking clearly. And, by the way, these walkers are friggin' running! And they turn really quickly! Thinks 28 Days Later or World War Z. They will chase you down like a horde of Usain Bolts. The body actors that play the zombies do a damn job. I wonder how many of these extras are contortionists or are just really limber folks? The zombies' grotesque physicality and eerie motions fall perfectly in line with the distinct Asian horror aesthetic.
Maybe another reason this was so much a blockbuster is that Yeon Sang-ho didn't flinch from presenting an aggressive take on South Korean culture and politics and on the impregnable divide between the haves and have-nots. The inattentive dad is projected to be our hero, except he doesn't come off at all heroic during the movie's first act. Seok-woo is one selfish executive who early on advises his daughter: "At a time like this, only watch out for yourself." Thankfully, the little girl is made of sterner stuff.
What do you do when your train is packed with zombies? You get off the train, right? It amuses me that when the passengers did get off, they ran into so much bulls---, they were like, "Let's get back on the train." It's shortly after this that class warfare breaks out among the survivors. I'm no expert on foreign affairs, but I've heard tell that this and that corporate entity, and even the government, in South Korea have recently effed with the general public. This makes Train to Busan resonate that much more with its resentful viewing public. That one transportation CEO? That guy I can't stand, and I kept yelling, "Why is he still alive?" He's the primary instigator. So many people bite it because of him. He personifies corporate greed and cutthroat ethics. He may be juuuuust a bit cartoony.
Snowpiercer with zombies? Sure. But it's better than Snowpiercer. I didn't tear up during Snowpiercer. I did here, maybe two times. But, dear gorehound, if you're not having it with the three-hanky melodrama, other attractions may sway you. The special effects are rad, although, okay, most of the "special effects" are practical effects executed by a mess of double-jointed body actors and some nice make-up work. The cast is peppered with some really likable and very human characters, none more relatable than the working-class husband (who is my favorite) and his pregnant wife. I enjoyed the banter between those two. This movie is tremendously staged. The suspense doesn't let up. The cinematography is sleek. Importantly, we see the survivors come up with creative ways to fend off the zombies, so the kills aren't so repetitive. I heard that Sang-Ho also made an animated prequel, titled Seoul Station, that's set one day before Train to Busan and charts the early stages of the epidemic. Once my nerves settle, maybe I'll look into that. And, please, please, please, no American remake.