Sunday, 27 January 2019

See This Now: Kingdom

Sweet Jumping Zombie Jebus.

Here's my dilemma: I really can't tell you a damn thing about this series beyond the bare bones, because there are so many good moments in this six part Korean historical zombie apocalypse drama that, if I were to spoil even one, you'd hate me forever.

When the trailers for this first hit, a lot of the comments section thought it was Last Train to Busan but with swords and funny hats. It really isn't. Really. REALLY. But I can't spoil, can't spoil, mustn't spoil …

Hokay. Take a breath.

The King is dead.

That leaves the Kingdom caught between two factions. The Crown Prince, played by Ju Ji-hoon, is the presumptive heir, but he's also the son of a concubine, so if any legitimate progeny happens to swagger onto the scene, his standing is shaky. The current Queen, Kim Hye-Jun, is pregnant, with a month to go. If her child's a boy, as hoped, then she and her family are set for life. But if the King's death becomes common knowledge then the Crown Prince gets the throne, and then it won't matter if she has quintuplets.

If only there was some way to bring the King back to a semblance of life, even just for a month or so. Luckily for the Queen and her scheming father, the Chief Councilor, masterfully played by Ryoo Seung-Ryong, there's a renowned physician who's supposed to be able to fix anything. The doctor knows of a plant that resurrects the dead, and tries it out on the King's rapidly decomposing corpse.

Which poses a significant problem for all concerned, when the King comes back to life with a ravening desire for human flesh. Fortunately he falls unconscious during the day, but at night his  ceaseless quest for meat really puts a strain on the kayfabe. Bodies start piling up, most of which are disposed of quietly. People start to suspect. The Crown Prince begins an investigation, fearing the worst.

Then everything starts to go wrong.

The series is written by Kim Eun-hee, who's been working on Korean television dramas since 2010. This is the first time her work's featured outside Korea, as far as I can tell. The series is based on her webcomic Land of the Gods, published with YLAB back in 2014. I don't doubt someone is negotiating for the foreign language rights as I type this, and I'd be amazed if it wasn't in graphic novel form in a dozen different languages by Christmas 2019. Mind you, I'm so out of touch with that sort of thing, for all I know it already is.

Set in the Joseon period, when the country is on the brink of destruction due to internal strife, this series really shines with its thorough and detailed depiction of an advanced society about to boil over. Kings, princes, nobles - their squabbles are weakening the Kingdom to the point of destruction. At over $1.7 million per episode, you'd like to think it was as near perfect as human hands can make it - and it is. My only mild quibble is with the subtitles. People say gosh and goodness a lot. I do not think that is what they are actually saying.

My personal fave character is the Prince's sidekick,  played by Kim Sang-Ho, a cross between Porthos and Aramis - mostly Porthos. There's nobody you'd rather have at your back in a time of crisis, and this definitely qualifies. He plays off well against the Prince, a mix of d'Artagnan and Athos, mostly d'Artagnan. However there's plenty to choose from, and it's a fantastic ensemble cast with no weak players - though given the subject, I wouldn't get attached to any of them if I were you.

Yes, there are only six episodes in the first series. Take heart. There will be more. Especially if you tell Netflix how much you love the first season!

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Ghost Train (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

If you live in the UK and find yourself aboard an empty train, travelling from nowhere to nowhere at all, there's a good chance you're aboard one of its infamous ghost trains.

They run from station to station, almost unacknowledged by National Rail. Often there are no ticket machines, or ticket sellers that recognize the line. "You must be mistaken," say the people behind the service desk. "There's no such route." Except there is.

These trains exist because, in modern Britain, it's much more sensible to keep a train line active than to close it altogether, even if in order to do so you run only one train, every so often, without passengers. Nobody knows how many of these trains there are, not even the people paid to run the railways. "The department doesn’t hold a definitive list of these low-frequency routes," says Andrew Scott, one of the Department of Transport’s press officers. "We don’t use the terminology of ghost train – there’s no formally agreed definition of what would constitute one."

Sometimes called Parliamentary Trains, these passenger trains exist because it's far too expensive and cumbersome to shut the line down. First there'd have to be a transport appraisal, then a notice in the press, then a consultation period in which any member of the public can object, public meetings, more submissions … Much simpler, really, just to run a train down the line every so often and call it quits. Particularly if there's even a remote chance you might want to use the line again.

It used to be much easier to cut networks, and in the 1960s an axe went through National Rail, under the direction of Richard Beeching. However as objections grew to this drastic slimming of the lines, more and more roadblocks were put on the process, and by the 1970s it became prohibitively difficult to close a rail line. Which leads to the situation we have now, where trains run to no useful purpose. It's sometimes called closure by stealth, where the railway runs a line into the ground and then uses its lack of use as a reason for closing it permanently.

The term Parliamentary Train is Victorian, and originally referred to cheap trains that ran on less popular routes. The idea was, train travel benefited everyone, but not everyone could afford it, and some routes were useful but uneconomical to run. By Act of Parliament it was decreed that cheap trains between less popular destinations be built, allowing everyone no matter their bank balance to ride the rails. These were among the first to go when Beeching swung his axe, since these lines were uneconomical to run from the moment they were built - which was the whole reason for building them in the first place.

If you want to know more, head over here. The folks at Parliamentary Ghost Stations have tracked down these remnants of former glory so you don't have to.

Now we've talked about the real thing, let's talk scenarios.

What we've got: trains that run from station to station without any people on board, bar a few enthusiasts. They run at peculiar times of day and usually aren't announced, or even recognized, at the stations they service. So far as I can determine they don't run at night, though it would be fun if they did. There are some that run fairly late in the day - at 4pm, say - but not after dark. They appear all over the country, some even servicing London stations, where you'd think there'd be demand for almost any increase in public transportation.

Now for the Dracula Dossier:

Satan's Journey

Human Terrain/High Society: There's an unexpectedly high volume of chatter in the Department for Transport about the summary sacking of several Network Rail personnel. Normally this would get the unions in an uproar, but for once they're being quiet as mice. There's talk of improper use of government funds, but that's just a smokescreen. There was supposed to be a DfT inquiry, but the person meant to lead it got kicked upstairs and the inquiry's on what looks like permanent hold. The MP of the constituency affected was interested, but she died suddenly and her district's embroiled in a messy by-election. Whatever went wrong, the talk is all about something called a Black Train -whatever that may be.

Bureaucracy: The sacking of three Network Rail personnel has caused headaches for the stations affected. It was the manager of one of those stations that raised the initial complaint - something about homeless living on board one of the trains. However since the original complaint escalated rather messily, the station manager's fighting for his job, and by all accounts he's losing.

Occult: There's long been talk of some kind of Black Train, delivering victims to their final destination, and it's rumored that the whole thing is part of a Conspiracy scheme to keep vampires well supplied with victims. Nobody knows how it's supposed to work, or who's involved, but Dracula's Satanic Cult is meant to be behind it.

The Awful Truth
Back in the 1960s the defunct connection that became the Black Train was a rural line running from a major station out into the countryside, built originally in the 1870s at the request - whim, really - of a landed aristocrat who wanted a train line running close to his estate. That aristocrat's family later fell in with the Satanic Cult, and was enthusiastically involved in human sacrifice and hideous ritual magic. The train became their means of delivering necessary supplies, cult members and ritual sacrifices to the estate. However this all came to an end shortly after Dracula's departure from England, when the embryonic Edom rolled-up some of Dracula's weaker allies. Edom was helped by a suspicious fire that gutted the aristocrat's estate, killing the immediate family and leaving the remaining assets in the hands of distant cousins. What happens next depends on whether the line was left alone, run by Edom, or is still part of the Conspiracy.

Left alone: the scandalized cousins did their best to avoid public humiliation, and largely succeeded. Apart from some very unpleasant stories finding their way into local folklore and history books, the whole thing was hushed up. Most of the land was sold, except for the portion with the burnt-out ruins of the manor house. Nobody's ever tried to do anything with it, but it has become a magnet for some very peculiar people. The Madman (p121, DD) is one such, who keeps riding the rails regularly and howling at the manor when the train passes by. That was what got the station manager involved, but what he, and the DfT, didn't know is that there's a cobwebbed Edom directive which specifies anyone showing interest in that train line be forcibly discouraged. Edom being a traditionalist institution, nobody thought to ask why several people's lives had to be ruined to keep a train line out of the news.

Edom Involvement: As above, except the land was bought from the cousins by Edom. At the time it was just to keep it out of the hands of the remnants of the Cult, but thanks to its ritual associations the ride past the manor does very peculiar things to Renfields, and the effect seems to vary from subject to subject. So rather than shut it down, Edom decided to use it as a mobile enhanced interrogation suite. The 1960s Beeching Axe was a tremendous benefit for Edom, who got exclusive access to a now empty train. It got a lot of use in the 1970s, less in the 1980s, and by the 1990s the Black Line was pretty much obsolete. However it recently saw use again, and the rather messy result got the attention of the station manager. Now Edom's fighting a rearguard action to keep their dirty laundry out of the public eye.

Conspiracy Involvement: As above, except the land was bought by Conspiracy cutouts. Nothing was done with it until the 1970s, when the manor house and grounds were opened up to ritual use again. It saw off-again, on-again use through the 1980s, and in the 1990s a senior figure within the Satanic Cult adopted it as her favored ritual site. However a recent scandal involving [insert useful character here, perhaps the Madman or the Silent Servants] got more attention than the Satanic Cult likes, and now it's trying to cover its tracks.


Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Night Eats The World - Protagonist Design

The Night Eats the World, a 2018 indie horror release starring Anders Danielsen Lie as zombie holocaust survivor Ben, and directed, in a first-time feature length effort, by Dominique Rocher, is an entertaining way to spend an hour thirty minutes, with a very misleading trailer. You'd think this was action, action, action, chock-full of tense thrills, and it really isn't. If anything, it's zombie-lite; you rarely see the walking dead, which combined with an intelligent monster design makes the ravening ghouls much more threatening this time out. It's more a bleak, character-driven drama about loneliness and dealing with trauma, which works on its own terms and draws you into its claustrophobic Paris apartment building.

It didn't work for me, though, and it's because I really have no sympathy with the protagonist.

Ben is a misanthropic music lover who wants to get his cassette tapes back from his ex-girlfriend. The ex has moved out of wherever she and Ben lived, and inadvertently packed Ben's stuff among her belongings. When he goes to her new apartment, he finds her place packed with partygoers and an inconvenient current boyfriend, a reminder of Ben's sexual failures. Ben wants his tapes, but party comes first, and she's more interested in being hostess than solving Ben's problems. So Ben gets mopey, and drunk, and more drunk, until finally she pushed him off into an office where all the boxes are. He finds the tapes, but is incapable of moving at this point so he passes out and misses all the zombie action.

This is the first ten minutes or so of the film. He spends the next hour twenty surviving on his lonesome and realizing how much he misses having people to talk to.

As a slow-burn tragedy it works, but because I thought Ben an unlikeable, miserable prick at the start, and didn't have much reason to change my mind for most of the narrative, I wasn't too invested in his adventures. I know people like Ben. You know full well that if you were silly enough to sit next to Ben at this party one of two things would happen: he'd get drunk and say nothing at all, or he'd get drunk and say something unpleasant about his former girlfriend, or the party, or life in general. Either way, about as attractive as a slug excreting into your beer.

Which meant I spent more time picking apart the film than I did enjoying it. I mean, how many times can you pull the 'it was all a dream' trick, anyway? Damn, that must be the best fire alarm in the history of fire alarms, to go off now when there's no AC mains supply. Those batteries really held out. Does Paris not have some municipal code that mandates the blocking of fireplace flues? Why, in God's name, are you using YOUR ONLY SHOTGUN to prop open a door while you make a stealth run through a zombie-infested street?

See, if I actually liked Ben, or found something to admire in him, I wouldn't even think about these little things. Well, I might grouse about the number of times 'it's all a dream' gets used as an excuse for plot bullshit.  I see the film's based on a novel by 'Pit Argamen' aka Martin Page, and I'm really hoping the novel has more depth. It feels as though it might be a story with plenty of internal monologue, which is always tricky to do on the big screen.

If you're going to spend any amount of time with a fictional character, it's important - vital, even - to find something likeable about them. Dirty Harry has plenty of flaws, and you probably wouldn't want to live in the same apartment building as him, but he does have bravery, and compassion for the victims of violent crime. That was enough for five films, even though the character was paper-thin and two-dimensional at the end of it - and didn't have that many dimensions at the beginning either.

All of which got me thinking protagonists, and RPG characters.

I don't listen to every RPG podcast nor do I watch every Twitch stream - there aren't enough hours in the day. However I've listened to and seen enough of them to ask myself how I'd design an entertaining character. If Ben's failing is that he's not attractive in any way, then what makes a character attractive and therefore worth spending an hour thirty with - or a dozen or so RPG sessions?

The Deadly Sins get a lot of love, but the Virtues aren't nearly as appreciated. Chastity, Temperance. Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility - these are the things that make a character interesting, and each Virtue has modifiers that further elaborate the core tenets of the virtue. Some RPG systems lean heavily on this. Vampire presses the Humanity button repeatedly to make up for the evil nature of its protagonists, and Humanity is part of Temperance. However it's true across the board, whether explicitly part of the system or not. Persistence, making an effort - all part of Diligence. Forgiveness, Compassion, Bravery - Patience, Kindness, Humility.

To give you the longer version:

Chastity (purity, abstinence)
Temperance (humanity, equanimity)
Charity (will, benevolence, generosity)
Diligence (persistence, effortfulness, ethics)
Patience (forgiveness, mercy)
Kindness (satisfaction, compassion)
Humility (bravery, modesty, reverence/deference)

If there is to be anything likeable in a character, they ought to demonstrate at least one of these qualities. Nobody has to be a saint-in-training, but then you don't have to be a saint to be brave, or show forgiveness, or abstain from getting rat-arsed and falling into a self-pitying, boozy stupor when the zombie apocalypse shows up.

Gumshoe uses the Drives mechanic to give characters motivation, and these Drives can be tied to Virtues to make characters more interesting. A Drive without some kind of foundation is meaningless, but a Drive with a foundation in Virtue has meaning.

Using Nights Black Agents as a template: Altruism and Atonement are fairly obvious. Altruism springs from Temperance, perhaps Charity. Someone becomes altruistic because they have great humanity, benevolence, generosity. Atonement can have the same source, but comes at that source from a different perspective - one dark event that leads the character to seek atonement through humanity, or generosity. Comradeship from Humility, bravery, even reverence, in this case submission to the legitimate order of a superior. Mystery from Diligence, with its focus on persistence and effort. Nowhere Else To Go from Kindness, with compassion. Patriotism is Humility wrapped up in the flag. So on and so on, with odd ones like I Never Left, Programming and Collector linked to hidden Virtues, part of the cover story.

This doesn't have to be a ton of work. Remember the one sentence rule. Going back to an old post about hacking, I designed a character:


One sentence: Former Nollywood actor and con artist shooting for the big leagues.

To make things interesting, add:

Virtue: Diligence (persistence). Kayo loves a challenge, and makes sure every hack he undertakes is carried out to the very best of his ability.

Adding that Virtue not only makes the character more interesting, it also adds extra roleplay hooks. By playing this Virtue, the Director gets extra ways to dig into Kayo's story, creating new plot paths designed with this Virtue in mind.


Sunday, 6 January 2019

Go See This Now: Train to Busan & Seoul Station

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!