Train to Busan (2016)

So, when I first heard that this film was coming out, I desperately wanted it to provide a different cultural take on the zombie figure that has been an American horror film staple since George A. Romero’s small-budget, B-movie zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968.

When Night came out, it made waves for various reasons. Most significant of which was its progressive choice of protagonist and bleak ending. Duane Jones who plays Ben, the film’s black protagonist, survives the horror of the zombie outbreak only to be casually picked off  the next day by a band of White men with guns who mistake him for a zombie.

When Romero made the sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), all anyone could talk about was how the insatiable appetite of the zombie is a reflection of our own consumerist culture, a point that is clearly made by setting the bulk of the action inside a mall. For more on zombies and consumerism check out S. Harper’s essay, “Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate.”

Other notable zombie films include Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie classic, 28 Days Later which gave us the original running zombies that made us shit our pants. But also symbolised, speed, rapid development and how we’re just moving too fast for our own good.

To this famous array of zombie films I also want to add Warm Bodies (2013), not the best zombie film by anyone’s standards, but a significant one because of its strange mix of genres. As an action-horror-Romance film, it is as if the film was made in response to how over the years the gap between the human and the zombie had gotten so small we now have to find a way to redeem the zombie figure so we can go on living with ourselves. The TV series iZombie (2015- ) does pretty much the same thing too with its zombie protagonist, Olivia Moore (Rose McIver).

So I guess the point I’m trying to set up with this spiel is that the zombie figure is an incredibly versatile figure and I was really looking forward to a different cultural take on the zombie with Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016).

And I’m so pleased and so happy to say that it delivers (probably more than I’m able to encapsulate here because my expectations were so high and the film met most of them too).

So here are some of the things I really enjoyed about the film (Warning: SPOILERS!!!):

  1. It’s not about consumerism anymore but it’s about conformity: As a S. Korean film (set in S. Korea, produced in S. Korea, directed by a S. Korean), the context just adds to the film’s message in a way that even if the exact same film was made and produced elsewhere, it wouldn’t be the same film. Anyway, where did I get this idea of the film being about conformity from? The first wave of zombies you get up close and personal with are all wearing uniforms. Train conductor uniforms, High School Student uniforms, military uniforms. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how uniforms and uniformity erase individuality and threaten to turn people into an unthinking zombie mob.
  2. Contemporary update to the zombie mythos: Part of zombie films is the changing point of origin of the spread. Is it voodoo, like in the pre-Night zombie films? Is it something introduced into the water like in The Crazies (2010) from a government experiment gone wrong? Is it the Umbrella Corporation-funded virus research that gets out like in the Resident Evil franchise (2002 -2016)? Where the zombie comes from reflects what society fears the most at that moment. And in Train there’s a phone call that implicates the protagonist, Seok Woo’s (Yoo Gong), who is a fund manager and his company. Ah… we’ve finally reached the point where the economic machinery, Wall Street and all the recent problems with the financial systems of the world are now (in)directly responsible for the zombie outbreak. Nice. Frankly, it’s been a long time coming.
  3. The play on Sight and Vision in the zombies from Train: Every zombie franchise will try and characterize their zombies differently. I’ve already mentioned running zombies in 28 Days Later, and the thinking, compassionate zombies that can become human again in Warm BodiesThe Walking Dead (2010- ), I believe has zombies with an acute sense of hearing and smell. Train establishes the zombies’ poor sense of sight and creates a number of high-tension set pieces around this plot point. But what is truly wonderful is how it is used near the end of the film in contemplation of what one might see in their final moments before turning into a zombie. Very melodramatic, but a good melodramatic. Very different from the kind of melodrama that comes with the excessive use of slow motion that silent screaming because of the cutting out of diegetic sound, which this film comes dangerously close to overusing.

At this point I want to say that I have yet to give away any real spoilers to the film, I think? But if you read on there’ll definitely be spoilers because I’m going to get into character/ characterisation and the ending.

  1. Of Character Growth and Fine Acting: Yoo Gong’s fund manager Seok Woo experiences a tremendous amount of character growth that is extremely pleasurable and fulfilling to watch, especially when he’s played off the more likable Sang Hwa played by Ma Dong-Seok. Fund manager has to learn how to be less self-serving in order to survive this zombie apocalypse and in a poignant moment in the second half of the  film he does. In this scene, Seok Woo grabs Yong Suk (Kim Ui-Seong), an elderly gentleman and another suit wearing corporate type, punches him out, and accuses him of being an asshole for not opening the door earlier. The close-up shot in this scene shows some very fine acting on the part of Yoo Gong because we get multiple layers of horror. Horror over how quickly, easily and uselessly the life of a key character has been snuffed out; and the horrific realization that if he didn’t change his ways, Seok Woo might as well be looking in the mirror.
  2. Gender and violence and the new world order: The film also does something very interesting with gender. The excitement from the action sequences that characterize the bulk of the film are male-dominated and driven by three fairly likable male protagonists. There’s even a bromantic tete-a-tete that takes place inside one of the washrooms onboard the train as they hide out from the zombies outside. Yet, all three male protagonists, tainted by the extreme violence that is required of them to survive the zombie apocalypse, must die together with the previous world order in order for the new world, symbolized by the child and pregnant mother who survive to the end, to be born. The split between male and female protagonists is unmistakably clear but as to what to make of it I suppose more research is needed. But if I had to hazard a guess, the old world order is a violent, class-oriented, patriarchal system based on exploitation, unthinking conformity and untrustworthy figures of authority (all foregrounded in various scenes throughout the film). And the new world order, represented by the thinking military man who chooses NOT to shoot at the approaching survivors despite orders from HQ to go ahead, is a representation of a more interconnected and compassionate humanist society where individuals make clear-minded decisions, act responsibly and don’t just follow orders.
  3. Ending and Homage to Romero: I love how the ending flirts with recreating the bleak ending from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead but then decides to forego this. It’s also a very dense and layered ending because the return to the motif of sight and vision. The military snipers guarding the tunnel entrance almost shoot the pregnant mother and child because of the difficulty of getting visual confirmation over whether the approaching figures are zombies or survivors. The fact that confirmation comes in the form of the child singing the song from her recital (a plot point established earlier in the film that lends the film a lovely framing narrative) creates a thematic coherence in the film about family and human connection.

So to tie everything together with what I mean when I say I feel Train has delivered in terms of a different cultural zombie is this:

It has the zombie hoard stand in for the problems with conformity instead of consumerism which is a distinct quality of Asian societies. It gives the film a distinctly melodramatic treatment that I’ve always associated with Kdramas & Jdramas. And it’s turned the fight against the zombie into a class-related struggle where the zombie is born out of the excesses of the rich, instead of a race-related one as seen in Night.

So yeah, that’s my two cents about zombies and Train to Busan, all 1500 words of it.

Fiscal Movies – A Long View

I watched The Big Short (2015) last night on Netflix and really liked it. The editing was sharp and in turns funny with its fourth-wall-breaking celebrity cameos to explain fiscal jargon, and serious and heartfelt with its interwoven personal narratives and acknowledgement of the net human loss of the 2008 financial crisis even though the subject of the narrative focused on how a small group of people earned big by predicting the housing market collapse.

After watching the film I marveled at how many other films about the 2008 financial crisis there have been. The ones that ostensibly have the event as its subject matter couched in either a documentary format like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Inside Job (2010), or serious drama like Margin Call (2011) and The Big Short (2015), the algorithm on IMDB will help group together as associated films that you can easily look for in the site if you have a hankering for such films.

The ones I find more curious are the increasingly more fictionalized treatments of the event on the spectrum between realist genres like documentaries and more formalist ones like action films and what they say about how the collective imaginative, so badly bruised by this event, is negotiating and recovering from it.

So together with the above group of films, I also thought of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The International (2009), The Other Guys (2010) and Now You See Me (2013).

The difference between the earlier group of films and Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is that Scorsese’s more fictional take on the event experienced primarily through Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort tracks the impact of a fraudulent system and male-driven/dominated culture within that system on the corruption of a single stockbroker. Belfort’s drug induced subjective crawl from the country club to his car best illustrates the emphasis on character driven subjective realities in this interpretation of the event compared to the more fact and event driven narratives that pay more attention to timelines and chronology for their dramatic tension in the earlier set of films.

Further down this spectrum between realist and formalist is The International which I didn’t actually watch but I remember thinking when I saw the trailers and read the synopsis that people must really hate bankers now. I mean, the tagline for this film is, “They control your money. The control your government. They control your life. And everybody pays.” So the premise of the film is that interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is coming after a financial institute for they’re role in international arms dealing! I mean wow. I guess cheating people of billions and billions of dollars is not bad enough because as a white collar crime it’s so intangible. This action flick had to turn it into actual arms dealing so as to legitimize some physical violence and bloodletting to feed the public bloodlust for all these banker-types responsible for the financial crisis.

Coincidentally, this split between blue collar and white collar crime and crime divisions and the way in which the action film genre glamorizes one over the other despite how white collar crime has clearly proven to be the far more impactful of the two is the implied subject matter of The Other Guys (2010). Grossly overlooked and under appreciated, this film is so sharp and so funny, I just wish more people would watch it. Formalistically aware, the white collar crime centre of the film is given the action genre treatment while self-reflexively commenting on the mismatch between genre and subject matter. The closing credits are also priceless with its easy to understand infographics breakdown of the crisis. It’s clever, educational AND entertaining… honestly what more can an audience ask for?

Last on my list is Now You See Me (2013), very very tangentially related to anything to do with the financial crisis but I thought maybe part of its success is not just that it’s a fun action film but at the heart of it, it’s a robin hood narrative. The rich are so hated right now because of how the crisis foregrounds the way the rich profit off the rest of society. So when the climactic moment of the film is a bank heist and a shot of money raining down on the citizenry, you know this is wish-fulfillment fantasy. We want to see the ‘bad guys’ (banks/bankers) punished and the good guys (bank robbers!) win, with the little people well looked after in the process.

The danger in this slide towards action/action-comedy films in this treatment of the 2008 financial crisis however, is the oversimplification of all the different factors that led up to it. And one has to wonder how big a role the media plays in helping the collective imaginative ‘heal’ from this traumatic historical event and forget about it in a kind of selective amnesia only for it to repeat itself again in the future.

Age of Innocence (1993)

I’m really proud of the following paragraph from my Scorsese 15 page Final Paper:

“There is a good argument to be made for how the reader/viewer never really gets a clear understanding of who Ellen is because all that we see of her is mediated through Newland’s point of view who, as an aesthete, has a view of Ellen that is very much romanticized and mediated through the art he loves and fetishizes. This is seen in how almost all of his major meetings with Ellen is preceded or followed by an art form of some sort that informs his manner of interaction with her. He is in attendance at Gounod’s Faust during the daisy scene when he is reintroduced to Ellen for the first time. The next time he sees her at Mrs. Mingott’s is preceded by a shot of The Death of Jane McCrea (1804) by John Vanderlyn. In Ellen’s house, decorating her drawing room is a painting of a woman with a parasol but no face from the pre-Impressionist Macchiaioli School of Italian painters (Scorsese 189). Their sorrowful parting after he convinces her not to divorce the Count is followed by a highly melodramatic scene, also about departure, from Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun (1874), which he then rewrites in a wish-fulfilment fantasy at the Patroon house at Skuytercliff. In his final meeting with Ellen before his marriage, hanging over the fireplace is a Fernand Khnopff painting called The Sphinx or The Caresses (1896). At the Mingott house in Newport, right before he is asked to call Ellen from the shore path is a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema titled Expectations (1885). And finally at the Louvre, 26 years later, Newland is appreciating Peter Paul Rubens’ Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medici (1624), which contains a complex blend of an allegory of the times and mythological elements (Adeline), when he comes to the realization that Ellen had become to him ‘an imaginary loved one in a book or picture,’ ‘the complete vision of all that he had missed,’ more ‘abstract’ than real.”

Here’s a break down of some of the paintings in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993):

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Title: The Death of Jane McCrea (1804) by John Vanderlyn

Significance: Newland sees Ellen as a captive of the aristocratic tribe in New York

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Title: Signora seduta all’aperto by Giovanni Fattori

Significance: Ellen’s motivations remain inscrutable to the end of the film. The figure in the painting has no face because she doesn’t let you see it? Or is it a matter of the blankness inviting the viewer to impose/imagine an expression in that blank space?

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Title: The Sphinx or The Caresses by Fernand Khnopff (1896)

Significance: Ellen is a sphinx that Newland can’t understand. She is a female mystery, and enigma. But she is also threatening as in the original oedipal myth. She is also a myth and an unreal conception of the male imagination (Newland’s). The painting is also called The Caresses and this is also the scene where Newland and Ellen share that odd embrace:

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Title: Expectations (1885) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Significance: this is the painting Newland sees right before he goes to fetch Ellen from the shore path. Ellen is posed the way the woman is posed in this painting with both of them looking out to sea in anticipation of something. This casts Ellen in the position of art object to Newland’s subject position. The title of the painting is also ambiguous. It is unclear whether the woman is expecting to see something or whether we are expecting her to see something? Sort of like how Newland expected Ellen to turn around while she simultaneously expected him to come to her. So it’s a matter of who’s doing the expecting and whose point of view is privileged that becomes important.

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Title: Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of the Regency of Marie de Medici (1624) by Peter Paul Rubens

Significance: the painting contains both allegorical and mythical elements making it a blend of both history and fiction. The allegorical element in the painting refers to how the woman on the right in the throne is supposed to be Marie de Medici who had to assume the throne after the assassination of Henri IV (Louvre). The point being that this painting is a blend of both historical fact and myth just like how Ellen had become to Newland – “Whenever he thought of Ellen Olenska, it had been abstractly, serenely, like an imaginary loved one in a book or picture. She had become the complete vision of all that he had missed.”

To find out more about the other paintings in The Age of Innocence and in other movies, checkout the following website: Paintings in Movies