I've quite enjoyed and appreciated a large number of intense Korean crime/vengeance thrillers (from the Park Chan-Wook trilogy to I SAW THE DEVIL), and have always seen them as the antithesis to the American DEATH WISH movies (which, in turn, took quite a different attitude than did their own source material). But I've always found Korean 'genre' horror fare harder to deal with. Such films usually start off with a string of established Western cliches... and when they do nothing else with them, the results can be as bland and disposable as the umpteenth slasher ripoff. Yet on the other hand, when they spend far more time with family dynamics and social issues, I can get impatient waiting for the monster to reappear no matter how well-shot or acted the film may be. In any event, the truly ambitious Korean films have little to no interest in appealing to Western sensibilities.
Case in point: THE HOST was misleadingly pitched to me as "better than Godzilla" and "one of the best giant monster movies ever made." I thought there was some terrific stuff in the first half, but the much-anticipated and highly-praised film ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth with its indulgent running time, repetitious character scenes... and a deal-breaker of an ending. Friends have carefully explained the Korean dynamic to me and told me what I should have appreciated about THE HOST--and yes, I was open-minded enough to listen. At the same time, I don't think it's a flaw in my character that I would still much rather watch a Godzilla movie than sit through THE HOST again.
The one Korean 'horror' film of recent years that struck a perfect chord with me was Park's vampire thriller THIRST. And now comes Sang-ho Yeon's TRAIN TO BUSAN, which, as THE HOST before it, was breathlessly hyped as the zombie-action epic to beat them all; the one that would blow THE WALKING DEAD out of the water.
Now, if you don't mind my honesty, I don't happen to think that THE WALKING DEAD has much to blow anymore. And you can interpret that sentence any way you like. Snerk!
But I am so thoroughly, utterly burned out on 'zombie' movies that I couldn't bear the thought of sitting through yet another film in which the dead walk (or run) and infect you with a bite. Oh, and I presume you have to shoot them in the head? PLEASE! NO MORE! But "the word" on how truly great this film was continued to rain down and I finally caved in.
Stock characters? Check. Leading right off with the super-busy financial consultant who misses his daughter's recital and buys her a birthday present she already has. Nor am I going to go through the rest of the characters on the train--you know them all and you've seen them all countless times before. But Dad is going to go out of his way to escort his daughter to meet her mother at the end of a passenger train journey. Too bad a 'minor' accident in the industrialized area has kicked off one of those 'overnight apocalypse' plagues and that an infected stowaway just manages to make it on board the train before it takes off.
Here's why I had such a huge problem reviewing this movie... and still do. The more I tell you about the setup, the more I rehash the stuff you already know and make the film sound like a generic ripoff. But the more I tell you about how the film REALLY goes and how it consistently thwarted my expectations (much to my frustration on occasion), the more I get into major spoiler territory.
Once again, I was annoyed that the film wasn't going the way I wanted it to go (more than anything else, I wanted one particularly exasperating character removed from the action so that he couldn't keep running interference on pretty much everybody ELSE in the cast)--but that can hardly be held against the film or its makers. Once again, I enjoyed and appreciated a lengthy confab with a particularly knowledgeable friend who was far more keyed to the film's dynamic than was I.
That said, I enjoyed TRAIN TO BUSAN a hell of a lot more than I did THE HOST... despite the narrative's refusal to play out according to my whims, this is a relentless, break-neck horror show that belies its similarly-extended running time and provides suspense, action and spectacle (I was in particular awe of a sequence depicting an endless chain of zombies catching hold of a moving train and forming an ever-expanding 'bridge' of bodies in their efforts to climb aboard, which is right up there or above anything you saw in, say, WORLD WAR Z).
The film unquestionably delivers. So see it--and then we'll talk some more about it, okay?
Now, do I need to see THE WAILING?
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