Train to Busan (부산행, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

Train to BusanMany people all over the world find themselves on the zombie express each day, ready for arrival at drone central, but at least their fellow passengers are of the slack jawed and sleep deprived kind, soon be revived at their chosen destination with the magic elixir known as coffee. The unfortunate passengers on an early morning train to Busan have something much more serious to deal with. The live action debut from one of the leading lights of Korean animation Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) pays homage to the best of the zombie genre providing both high octane action from its fast zombie monsters and subtle political commentary as a humanity’s best and worst qualities battle it out for survival in the most extreme of situations.

Workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is having a series of very bad days. His wife has left him and for unclear reasons, also left their young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), in her father’s care though apparently wants custody in the ugly divorce battle that now seems inevitable. It’s Soo-an’s birthday but all she wants is to catch a train to Busan to see her mum and if she has to she’ll even go by herself. After his attempt at a birthday present spectacularly backfires, Seok-woo gives in and agrees to take Soo-an to her mother’s before catching the next train back after dropping her off. Unfortunately, they have picked a very bad day to take the train.

Yeon Sang-ho takes his time to build to the central train based set piece but is is careful to create an atmosphere which makes it plain that there is something very wrong with this seemingly everyday set up. After a brief dig about pig farmers losing out to government policy on foot and mouth disease and irresponsible hit and run drivers leaving deer corpses behind them for someone else to deal with, he has a parade of emergency vehicles racing past Seok-Woo and Soo-an on their trip to the station while ash rains down on their car. Seok-woo is still focussed on work though sleepy on the train so he misses Soo-an’s shocked reaction to a station guard being rugby tackled just as the train is leaving while a mass of improbable early morning revellers are trying to break through the line of staff holding them back at the platform steps.

Patient zero bounds onto the train just as the doors close though one wonders why no one is paying much attention to this obviously distressed young woman as she stumbles and writhes around in the train carriage before the virus fully takes hold. Just as we think someone is about to come to her aid, it turns out to be a case of a snooty passenger taking offence at the presence of an “odd person” on the train. The “odd person” turns out to be a homeless guy whose mutterings of “dead, all dead” take on a prophetic air rather than the ramblings of a mad man that the train guards assume them to be.

This kind of stereotypical othering and the selfish refusal to help fellow humans in need is at the very heart of the film. Seok-woo admonishes his goodhearted daughter when she repeatedly makes an effort to be a kind and decent person by giving up her seat for an old lady or wanting to stop and help others escape the zombie onslaught. However, Soo-an’s goodness wins through as she in turn chastises her father and explains that his selfishness and lack of regard for the feelings of other people is the very reason her mother left the family. Even if he begins by cruelly closing the door on the film’s most heroic character and his pregnant wife, Seok-woo gradually begins to develop a sense of social responsibility whether out of simple pragmatism or genuine fellow feeling.

Workaholic fathers with minimal connections to their offspring may be something of a genre trope but, as father-to-be Sang-hwa says, fathers often get a bad rap – making all of the sacrifices and enjoying none of the rewards. In an attempt to show solidarity with Seok-Woo, Sang-hwa assures him that his daughter will understand why he worked so hard all the time when she grows up and reiterates that true fatherhood is about self-sacrifice. This is one sense plays into the earlier themes of Seok-Woo’s self-centred viewpoint in asking if he really is working hard for his family or only wants to been as such, maintaining his own social status and upperclass lifestyle and completing it with a perfectly posed family photo. A father is supposed to protect his daughter and now Soo-an has only him to rely on, if Seok-woo is going ensure her survival he will have to decide what kind of sacrifices he’s prepared to make on her behalf.

If the film has a villain it isn’t the rabid zombie hordes who, after all, are only obeying their programming, it’s personal, corporate, and political greed. The clearest embodiment of this is in the panicked businessman who frequently tries to issue orders to the train staff and insists the train take him to his preferred destination. After trying to get the homeless man thrown off the train early on, the fascistic businessman picks up a lackey in the form of a steward and begins trying to exclude all the “suspicious” people from his general vicinity. Cruel and cowardly, the businessman’s selfish actions only cause more problems for everyone else whilst whipping up unhelpful paranoia among those who will need to work together to survive. Literally feeding even his most loyal comrades to zombies to buy himself time to escape, this egotistical CEO is the perfect metaphor for cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system which is, as Sang-hwa said, content to let the “useless” fall behind.

That’s not to forget the actual undead threat. Yeon Sang-ho’s walking dead take inspiration from his animated work and move quickly with jerky, uncanny movements more like Butoh dancers than the usual stupefied shufflers. The set pieces are expertly choreographed and well shot, maintaining the tension throughout though the increase in scale towards the final stretch is at odds with the leaner, meaner approach of the early scenes. Despite eventually giving in to melodrama in a heavily signposted script, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an impressive effort making room for his standard social concerns whilst also providing innovative zombie thrills. Yeon Sang-ho’s message is clear, when disaster strikes no one can survive alone, the only chance for salvation lies in altruistic compassion. In the end the best weapon against the darkness is a children’s song as innocence finally triumphs over fear.


UK release trailer:

King of Pigs (UK Anime Network Review)

image-8-king-of-pigsFirst Published on UK Anime Network in May 2013


Korea has a long tradition of animation but is perhaps more famous overseas for providing technical services to higher profile productions from other countries. The King of Pigs is the first feature length Korean animation to be shown at Cannes and has been screened at several other film festivals worldwide, picking up a few awards along the way too. Korean live action cinema of recent times has earned itself a reputation for being unafraid of violence and difficult subject matters – an ethos which appears to have directly penetrated into King of Pigs which nothing if not extremely bleak.

As the film begins, failed businessman Kyung-min weeps naked in a shower while the contorted face of a strangled woman lingers hauntingly in the next room. He makes a phone call hoping to track down an old childhood friend – perhaps because he feels he’s the only one who can help him understand what he’s done or because he feels somehow as if this person represents a fracture point in his life where everything started to go wrong. This long lost friend, Jong-suk, seems to be in a similarly dismal situation – an under appreciated ghost writer who’s constantly berated for writing unemotional prose, he returns home to beat his wife after accusing her of having an affair (which turns out to be doubly wrong as she’d been meeting with a publisher about Jong-suk’s own novel). The two men meet and talk over a traumatic period in their childhood when their only protector was another boy, Chul – self titled King of Pigs.

The school system was divided rigidly along lines of economic/social status and academic prowess and neither Kyung-min nor Jong-suk found themselves in the elite camp. Beaten, humiliated and molested the boys appear to have no recourse except to grin and bear it – even the teachers and authorities appear complicit in this unofficial caste system. That is until Chul dares to fight back, violently, on behalf of not only himself but all the other ‘pigs’ too. The three end up becoming a team bound by mutual suffering much more than friendship or human emotion. It takes more than one boy to destroy a system though and circumstances conspire to ruin whatever headway they might have made. These times will affect each boy more than he could ever have guessed and these changes will not be for the better.

The King of Pigs is certainly not an optimistic film. Though it seeks to depict a corrupt system based on arbitrary and unfair principles, perpetuated by the adults in charge and those trapped inside it, it has to be said that by the time we meet the young counterparts none of them is especially sympathetic. It’s an unfortunate part of the film’s message but the fact that both the young boys are so passive and complicit in their own degradation makes it very difficult to build up a sense of sympathy for them. You might think then that Chul would be the natural hero of this piece as the self appointed ‘savior’ of the hopeless cases but his manifesto rapidly turns so repellant that you can’t get behind him either. What you’re left with is a group of misogynistic ‘little men’ who in turn transfer the frustration they feel with their own sense of inferiority on to those they believe to be even weaker than themselves. The film tries to imply that the grown up failures of these men are a direct consequence of a broken school system, yet as we meet them already in the system rather than as totally innocent children, it’s not possible to follow this line of reasoning as the boys appear deeply unpleasant from the offset.

Unfortunately, another thing the film isn’t is subtle. The director really wants to hammer home his message about the socio-economic unfairness that seems to penetrate every area of society and prevent any sort of social mobility, but often it’s akin to being hit over the head with the same idea repeatedly several times over the course of the film. It is extremely violent in a deeply uncomfortable way to the extent that you could call this a ‘nasty’ film – the scene of animal cruelty alone feels both like an underdeveloped cliché and a thinly veiled attempt at shock value. In short, the film constantly undermines itself by shooting straight for the extreme where a more nuanced approach may have made its subject matter all the more powerful.

As it stands, it’s quite difficult to recommend The King of Pigs either as an entertainment piece or as a serious art film seeking to examine Korea’s attitudes to social class. The film was made on an independent basis and some may find its aesthetic a little basic in terms of animation quality yet it does have some interesting directorial ideas and composition. Though it ultimately fails, the film does deserve some praise for tackling such a difficult subject matter – genuinely adult contemporary animation can often be difficult to find. However it’s partly its desire to be ‘adult’ that destroys its ability to be taken seriously – by skewing towards the ‘extreme’ audience who may only be interested in the violence rather the problems that underly it, The King of Pigs risks been seen as a schlocky horror story rather than a parable about some very real social issues.


Available now in the UK from Terracotta Distribution.

Review of Yeon Sang-ho’s second and much improved animated feature The Fake.

 

The Fake (UK Anime Network Review)

2013 - The Fake (still 7

Another Korean Film Festival review just gone live on UK Anime Network, this time a new animated effort from the director of King of Pigs – The Fake.


 

Yeon Sang-ho’s previous film, The King of Pigs, was the first Korean animation to be screened at Cannes and was nothing if not a bleak look at the prevalence and long term effects of bullying in the Korean high school system. His next film, The Fake, is another dark exposé but this time of another great pillar of Korean society – evangelical religion. False prophets abound as Yeon takes us on a difficult journey through the nature of faith, desperation and the exploitation of human weakness.

A small Korean town is slowly being dismantled before being sacrificed for new damming project. The people of the town are being appropriately compensated by the government, but still they’ll have to pick up and start again somewhere else even though many of them are already past retirement age. Two new forces are descending on this once ordinary town – one offers hope in the form of an evangelical preacher who claims to cure the sick and offers a place in a new paradise (to those with the money to buy a ticket – places strictly limited, terms and conditions may apply) and the other a violent drunkard, Min-chul, who wastes no time in wreaking havoc on the lives of his wife and daughter. Unfortunately, Min-chul picks a fight with the wrong person and is the only one to realise that the preacher’s “backer” is notorious fraudster currently wanted by police for a string of similar crimes. Sometimes the truth comes in unpleasant packages, and being the sort man he is, who would believe Min-chul when he’s the only one who’s seen through this “fake” miracle?

It goes without saying that like The King of Pigs, the world depicted in the The Fake is utterly bleak and without even the faintest glimmerings of hope. Every character is flawed, very few have any redeeming features at all and almost nothing good happens in the entire course of film. However, it is marginally more subtle than King of Pigs which is a much welcome upgrade over the previous film’s excesses. Faced with such a bleak situation, it isn’t surprising that the entire town has fallen hook, line and sinker for the false hope offered by the eerily cult-like preacher and his camp of evangelicals. The preacher himself may once have been a genuine man of god, but his business minded backer acts totally without compunction and is only interested in cold, hard cash. Peddling “holy water” as a supposed curative, neither the preacher nor the business man seem to care that one of their biggest supporters is currently suffering from tuberculosis and foregoing modern medicine in favour of this spiritual treatment – after all, the con is nearly played out and they’ll be on their way before their spurious claims are exposed.

Their only adversary is Min-chul, a man so rude and violent that people stopped paying attention to him years ago. It doesn’t help that Min-chul is much less interested in the injustice of the fraudulent operation than he is in taking personal revenge against the group, firstly because of what happened the first time he met the businessman and secondly because they threaten to take away his wife and daughter which seems to be the thing that most frightens him. Nevertheless, he is a dogged pursuer and his constant attention is enough to put the fraudsters on edge. The real horrifying truth is that some of these people half know the reality already, they just don’t want to hear it. It’s much easier to just believe in the false hope offered to you than to face a hopeless reality in which you have no control and no possibilities. If someone tells you they can carry your burdens for you and make it all OK, you likely won’t want to listen to someone who says differently and the fact of the matter is you’re very unlikely to trust someone you didn’t like very much in the first place no matter how sensible their arguments maybe.

In terms of animation style, The Fake offers a slight upgrade over The King of Pigs whilst retaining a similar aesthetic. Yeo overuses the shaky-cam effects which have an oddly rhythmical, computerised feeling which becomes distracting and works against their intended purpose but overall the The Fake feels much more accomplished in terms of production values. It’s a cynical message and hardly an original one, but The Fake offers its own take on the nature of faith and organised religion and bar a few missteps does so with a much more nuanced eye than The King of Pigs. Intensely bleak, violent and unremitting, The Fake is definitely not for the faint of heart but is a definite step up from The King of Pigs and ironically offers a ray of hope for serious animation in Korea.