Working Class Zombi
The best zombi flick since Dawn of the Dead, Train to Busan reignites the proletarian potential of the walking dead by parachuting them without warning in a deliberately symbolic environment: a high speed train from Seoul to Busan, where the challenge is not to arrive in time, but alive. From the fifth minute on, it’s a 150′ very bleak joyride with no relief or plot gaps, full of of jaw-dropping scenes and images. It’s director Sang-ho Yeon’s first live action feature after five animes, it has broken all box office records in Korea and was screened, off the official selection, at the last Cannes Festival.
Korean movies have a history of violence, but it’s usually tempered by not-so-subtle humour or downright auteurism; what you feel watching this one is being hit at full speed by the flaming locomotive which makes a surprise appearance at some point: this is gut cinema, no pun intended.
So, zombis. We had more than enough of them in their myriad varieties, slow, fast, nazi, in love, alien or animal. All those predictable munchers gloomily forgot that zombi are by nature politic. George A. Romero set the template with Dawn of the Dead and its shopping mall besieged by herds of unwashed, greedy consumers – of manufactured goods or human flesh. Cinema owes to him to have elevated an otherwise empty voodoo doll into a powerful metaphor for the 99%. Romero, however, is far from having visual flair, he relies almost entirely on the strength of his concept. When vampires are sexual, decadent aristocrats and ghosts strictly personal affairs between who haunts and who’s haunted, zombi come with a specific meaning: they embody class struggle, and they manifest themselves “when there is no more place in hell”. They are the repressed sins of a crashing system, a parable of dog-eat-dog, greed gone mad.
The movie central character and one of its heroes is Seok Woo, an investment banker who, in the first five minutes, acts like a jerk with a subordinate, his estranged wife and his daughter, to whom he bought a third Wii station to buy her patience facing his emotional absence. He’s the product of predatory finance and that’s makes him a survivor. His painful, bloody awakening to empathy is at the movie core. Actor Yoo Gong is tall, slender and handsome. He starts as a robot and comes to deliver a richly nuanced range of emotions, some of them rather cruel, like the repressed satisfaction smile he has when everyone dies in the next car. That’s one problem solved, see.
But one, for quick, strong and smart he or she is, can’t hope to remain aloof in viscerally cannibalistic environment, when third class goons not only hate the gut of the first class passengers, but literally jump at their jugular. Sacrifices have to be made, and sacrifice is the underlying theme of the movie. Almost no one will survive, after some heroic gestures and some repulsive behaviours. There is one tense scene, in which the small group of “heroes” is blocked between two cars, one full of zombis and the other of “uncontaminated” humans. Both camps act the same, with gregarious rage fueled, in the “human” case, by the villain of the piece, who’s the CEO of a transport company. He’s the cunning predator, manipulating public opinion like the government is seen to do in a short, revelatory TV insert. Who cares who has to die, if he can makes it to Busan.
Driven by a crazy captain of industry, the ghost train rushes towards a dead end, an apt translation to the screen of our current state of affairs. The heroes all have a moment of dignity, even the evil boss. What Train to Busan achieves is much more than grim social commentary intersected by short, sudden bouts of gory massacre. Its characters are all but dumb, resourceful to the point of ingeniousness. Tchekhov would have gloated with mirth: everything which is introduced in the first act is used, one way or another, be it a cellphone, a luggage rack or the corporate drones’ ties. The way the epidemic propagates is treated with respect for logic, sight and sound being essential factors to live or die. And there is this short, terrific cut on zero gravity zombis floating like carnivorous fish in their derailing tank, maybe the strongest image of the way one feels in 2016, when dealing with an utterly inscrutable economic and political situation.
The last scene is Korean to the extreme with its evocation of the demilitarised zone between North and the South. “It’s so dark on the other side”, a sniper says, while aiming his rifle to the survivors. You bet it is.
It seems American and French studios are trying to outbid each other for the rights to a remake. Korea uses Alstom trains so we might be screened “Train to Perpignan” at some point in the future. This is nonsense. This movie is perfect as it is, let it be seen as such. Viewing essential.