In my review of Yeon Sang-Ho’s Seoul Station from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, I said that I felt it would have been better as a live-action film than it was as an animated one. There was just something about its visuals that didn’t click with the audience, and it caused a weird distance between what was going on and the way I (and everyone around me) felt about it. I also noted that the film served effectively as a prequel to a live-action film called Train to Busan, which I hadn’t seen but had assumed might prove me right – that the story would work better with people instead of 3D models.
Now I’ve seen Train to Busan, and I’m conflicted about it. On the one hand, it definitely feels serious (and the crowd I saw it with was very with it from start to finish); on the other, it feels much less daring. Yeon Sang-Ho’s earlier work is pervaded by a sense of true horror and darkness, but his latest film doesn’t feel like that. It’s dark and sad, sure, but in a much less heart-wrenching way.
I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing.
Train to Busan (부산행)
Director: Yeon Sang-Ho
Release Date: July 22, 2016
I assumed while watching it that a big part of the reason Seoul Station was animated was the costs that would have been involved with making it for real. It’s a sprawling narrative, going all around a city that I expect is very expensive to shoot in. A higher budget would have absolutely allowed the movie to be live-action, but the resources weren’t available, so animation was the only way to tell the story. And that’s fair enough; you do the best you can with the resources that you have.
Train to Busan solidifies that theory, because it works on a much smaller scale than its predecessor. Much of the film takes place in a train, bringing to mind Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer (which, it should be noted, is another film I liked less than most of my movie-obsessed friends), though it’s on an even smaller scale than that. This isn’t a future world train. It doesn’t have greenhouses or saunas or crazy engine rooms. It’s just a train, albeit a pretty nice one. (The KTX looks much nicer than the Amtrak train I took this past weekend, and I’m now extremely jealous of South Korea’s infrastructure. But I digress:)
The potential benefit of a movie with a small scale is the ability to really connect with its characters. Without crazy set pieces to eat up minutes, there’s more time to learn about (and hopefully care about) everyone. And caring is crucial in a film like this, where, let’s face it, major characters are going to die. That’s a thing in zombie movies, and Train to Busan is no exception. It’s also a Yeon Sang-Ho movie, which means a whole heckuva lot of people are going to die. Probably in terribly depressing ways.
Or so I had thought. And, look, characters do die in some horrible and depressing ways, but it didn’t feel as consequential as I had expected. Part of me missed that pervasive horror that has defined Yeon Sang-Ho’s earlier work, but another part of me was glad that things weren’t quite so dark. Things definitely get bad, and there are bad people who do bad things (and make good people do bad things), but it just doesn’t feel as horrible as it did in the earlier works. I assume that this has to do with the live-action thing and the fact that a larger budget (I’m guessing) means that someone somewhere said, “Hey, we need people to go to this thing, so cut back just a bit.” It’s not neutered, necessarily, but it’s definitely scaled back.
For most people, I think that’s a positive, but I’m kind of on the fence. I know I felt more from the deaths in Seoul Station than I did in Train to Busan, even though I was distanced from the action. The characters themselves were just better developed. And perhaps that’s because it was less ensemble-y than its sequel. There may only be one protagonist, but Train to Busan is as much about the other people on the train. There are multiple character threads, and while they’re easy to keep track of, they all feel like they needed more time to build up.
The most interesting character by leaps and bounds is Ma Dong-Seok’s Sang-Hwa, whose personality is obvious from the moment you see him in his absolutely fantastic getup. Costuming says a lot, and his costuming is particularly on point. Other characters have pretty good costuming as well, but nothing is so interesting. You know who the other characters are by their clothes, but you don’t know who they are deep down. He is the only character who really feels alive.
But don’t let this sound like it’s all negative, because it’s not. It’s clear that Yeon Sang-Ho has learned a lot from his time directing animated films, and I hope that he goes forward with more live-action films, because it’s a very nice looking one. It’s very well directed, and I want to see him go further (and with more money).
It’s also got a different take on zombie mythology. These zombies function solely on vision (and, I guess, sound, but to a different extent). As soon as you’re out of sight, you’re instantly out of their minds. (Worth noting: I’m fairly sure that was not the case in Seoul Station, which (if true) is problematic, but eh. It’s not that big a deal.) It’s a change, and it means that hiding is a very effective tactic to stopping a zombie attack. And because of that, the characters are able to do some interesting things. In the cloak of darkness, they can play tricks in order to move the zombies as they like. There are some very clever moments as the characters attempt to get through the infested cars, and there are definitely some very intense moments.
Part of what makes it intense is that this is a zombie movie completely devoid of firearms. No guns means no bullets to the head means no dead zombies. They can just keep coming and coming. And while it doesn’t quite work out that way (the tension is diminished somewhat by unclear rules regarding the zombies), it’s genuinely refreshing to see how characters try to deal with an enemy that they cannot kill. I am fairly sure that I’ve never seen a zombie film without guns before, and for that alone Train to Busan deserves props. For all the times it feels like Just Another Zombie Movie, it also feels like something unique, and in a genre that’s this stale, that means a lot.