Let's kick the new year off with some quality zombie horror.
Many of you will know about Train to Busan, the runaway horror film by South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho, released after a rapturous reception at Cannes 2016. You may not know about Seoul Station, the animated feature-length prequel released a month later. Both are very worthy of your time, particularly if you enjoy zombie apocalypses, and nail-biting action.
Train to Busan opens on a quiet, eerie note. A farmer's truck pulls up at an official stop. He's angry as hell, and wants to know why, for the umpteenth time, he's being stopped. Is it foot and mouth? No, the officials reassure him, it's just a minor industrial accident. One quick spray of disinfectant and he'll be on his way. Unappeased, the farmer drives off, but being distracted by his phone he fails to spot a deer on the road, and runs it over. Even more annoyed now, he leaves the animal to welter in its blood - and so does not see it get up on its feet again.
It's one of the most original openings for this kind of story I've ever seen, and really set the pace for the first act, and the film as a whole. Normal, normal, normal … what the hell?!? Followed by screaming.
The action shifts to working dad Seok-woo, played by Gong Yoo. He's a fund manager, an absentee father, and a fairly important cog in a larger machine with a phone full of useful contacts, and clients who rely on him to get the job done. He's snowed under with work, so when his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) insists she be allowed to visit her mother in Busan, Seok-woo is resistant. He's in the middle of divorcing Su-an's mother, and the settlement's not going smoothly. However he's completely mucked up Su-an's birthday so far, having failed to go to her recital and bought her a Wii without remembering he'd already bought her one for Children's Day, so under pressure of parental guilt agrees to take her to Busan, by train.
This is day one of the zombie plague, and everything's about to go to hell.
If I had to choose one word to sum up Train to Busan, it's Trust. Seok-woo is completely untrustworthy, though he'd probably argue he's a stand-up guy. He works hard to provide for his daughter and elderly mother. Always finish what you start, is his motto. Yet this is the same man who calls his less wealthy and influential clients Lemmings, and keeps a special list in his phone's address book for Lemmings who might be useful. He calls one of those Lemmings later in the film, asking for a favour, offering hot stock tips if the Lemming will help him out of a jam. Just look out for yourself, don't try to help people, he tells his daughter.
This is why mommy left you, she tearfully replies.
I won't go any further than that, because talking plot from this point forward would constitute massive spoilers. I will say that it averages over 1.2 kills a minute with a 118 minute runtime, yet shows surprisingly little gore. The action scenes are believable, the characters are smart and motivated - very, very motivated - and you won't want your favorites to die.
Seoul Station starts in a very similar, low-key way. A homeless man staggers through the heart of Seoul, obviously injured. Though people see him, they don't bother to help - he's homeless, not worth their time. The man collapses in the train station as it's closing for the night, and only one of his fellow homeless tries to do anything to help him.
Of course, by the time he finally gets his injured buddy a bed for the night and some medical attention, it's already far too late …
The action switches to Hye-sun (Shim Eun-kyung), a young runaway who recently escaped a life of prostitution and his now living with her deadbeat boyfriend, Ki-woong (Lee Joon). Since Ki-woong's far too lazy to get a real job, he wants her to go back to prostitution so they can afford to lie around all day drinking, and he can go to the computer lounge whenever he likes. They have a screaming argument about this, and he kicks her out, but not before placing an advert online.
Her father Suk-gyu (Ryo Seung-ryong) sees this advert, flips out, and makes contact with Ki-woong. The young idiot thinks he can swindle the old man, not realizing that he's her father, not a customer. They meet. Threatening to beat the shit out of Ki-woong, Suk-gyu demands to see his daughter. Ki-woong explains that he doesn't know where she is, but thinks she might have gone back to the apartment.
By this time the zombie apocalypse is well underway. Will Suk-gyu find his daughter, before the whole world goes to hell?
If Busan was Trust, the one word for this film is Faith. Both religious faith, and faith in society as a whole. It is severely misplaced. There's nothing here for anyone, society is shit, and if you think there's a way out, you're wrong. But maybe, if you run far enough, fast enough …
The film nails this point very early on. In that opening sequence, two earnest young men discuss universal healthcare. It's a must, says one - society needs it. We need it. His friend agrees, but when the homeless man staggers past, clearly needing medical help, the two turn away as soon as they realize he's homeless. He stinks. Someone like him doesn't deserve help.
As with Busan, this film is surprisingly gore-free, given the subject, and very brutal. Not, perhaps, as brutal as Busan, but you just can't kill as many people in 72 minutes as you can in 118.
One point worth mentioning: although this is a prequel, it's not really attached to the original in any meaningful way. It's very much its own film. I did wonder if Seoul Station would spend any time talking about the mysterious industrial accident that starts this all off, but that's not mentioned nor is it really what this film is about. Seoul Station focuses with laser-like intensity on Hye-sun, Suk-gyu and Ki-woong, and whether or not the two men will finally rescue Hye-sun.
It's a remarkably intelligent film, just as Busan was before it. If a character opens a car door window, you can bet that this window will become important, even if it's fifteen minutes later. The characters are smart, motivated and do their very best to survive.
I highly recommend Yeon Sang-ho's work. I've only seen a few of his films, but every time I've been amazed by his talent, his eye for a dramatic scene, and his action sequences. If you liked these two, you should check out King of Pigs or The Fake, both of which are quality animated films.
Happy New Year!