Friday, July 28, 2017

Cat's Away AND Asian Audient: Train to Busan

This is both the third night of my informal viewing festival while my wife is out of town, and the seventh installment of my monthly Asian-themed viewing series Asian Audient.

Train to Busan was only a name I'd heard of as recently as a month ago, but during the intervening weeks it's taken the shape of one those popular phrases that suddenly starts collectively coming out of people's mouths at the same time. When I heard Ana Lily Amirpour, director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and the new film The Bad Batch, select it as her "random film she loves" in a recent interview on Filmspotting, I decided that its mentions had reached critical mass, and I could ignore them no longer.

And, it was streaming on Netflix.

Making it by far the easiest to get my hands on of the prospective candidates for Asian Audient. My only other Korean film (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) I was able to rent from iTunes with little drama, but that was after striking out on about five other Korean films I wanted to see more.

And going outside of the three nationalities I've watched so far, Chinese, Japanese and Korean? It's been a total failure. I even had a friend try to track down the (probably illegal) digital copy he had of Apichitpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, as he and his mate recently watched all of Weerasethakul's films as part of their own themed viewing series. So far, he hasn't found it, and Thailand remains shut out of the proceedings. (I'd be able to get my hands on Uncle Boonmee and Cemetery of Splendor, but I've already seen both of them.)

But not only is this the July entry in Asian Audient, of course it's also my third night of Cat's Away. After going to Ukraine last night I thought I'd keep the international flavor going, a bit to the north and east of there.

It was a relief, also, to finally get a movie under two hours, even if it only missed the two-hour mark by two minutes.

I was led to believe that Yeon Sang-ho's film is more than just a zombie movie, but really, it's just a zombie movie. But that's not a criticism. I guess I had the impression, from what Armipour said, that there was going to be some unexpected dimension to it, or at least a WTF aspect I couldn't have guessed. However, Train to Busan doesn't need that extra dimension or WTF aspect because it does the zombie genre proud. And it's got a high concept element to it -- it's basically Snakes on a Plane, except it's Zombies on a Train.

Unlike the movie I saw last night, though, in which deafness was a weirdly inessential aspect of the story they told, the train setting is incorporated very smartly into this one. It reminded me on more than one occasion, for probably obvious reasons, of another recent Korean-directed, train-set thriller, Snowpiercer. Both films make the train setting an essential component and use it in satisfying ways, with Snowpiercer bordering on the implausible and fantastical in its attempt to deliver social commentary (don't start pulling threads or it all come unraveled), and Train to Busan -- in the genre that almost always involves social commentary -- concentrating more on straight genre thrills that remain basically plausible. Both films do a really good job with the clever strategies for bypassing roadblocks to get from one side of the train to the other, and the ones here are clever enough for me not to spoil them for you.

Interestingly, both of those films have connections to other films I've seen recently -- if we are stretching "recently" back nearly a year to last year's MIFF. One of the films I saw at MIFF last year was also a zombie movie directed by Yeon Sang-ho, that one being a terrific animated film called Seoul Station. I'd say Sang-ho is a one trick pony -- I mean, both of those films have the name of a Korean city and a reference to trains in the title, plus they're both zombie movies -- except that they are made in two entirely different styles, animated and live action. How often do we see the same directors excel in both forms? Yet Yeon does so.

And as for Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho, this very month I have also seen his new film, Okja, a Netflix original. That one's quite different from Snowpiercer in many respects, but is recognizably the same director as it also features Tilda Swinton and has quite an eye for absurdist social commentary.

I won't get too deeply into the details of Train to Busan, largely because it's late (I'm writing this directly after the viewing) and because it's actually fairly conventional in most respects. It just does those conventional things very well. It's got really exciting set pieces and heart at its core.

I will spare one quick paragraph for the zombies themselves, though. They are fast zombies as opposed to the lurching kind, and the way the infection spreads and the way their insatiable hunger dominates them are both pretty familiar. But I did really like the physicality of these zombies, whose broken appendages flail about to the sides while never impeding their momentum. Plus, this film does something really well that World War Z tried to do and didn't quite get: those shots where there's such a teeming tangle of crazed undead that they spill out like water bursting through a dam wall. While the CG was anything but transparent in World War Z, here its much more seamless, and obviously therefore more convincing. And horrifying.

Next up in Cat's Away: It's a surprise, but I will tell you it has a 2017 release date.

Next up in Asian Audient: Enter the Dragon, maybe? If you can believe it, I've never seen a Bruce Lee film.

I may have to give up on Thailand.

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