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Train to Busan (2016) / D: Yeon Sang-ho / 118m

aka Busanhaeng

Cast: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Eui-sung, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee, Choi Gwi-hwa, Jung Suk-yong, Ye Soo-jung, Park Myung-sin

Seok-woo (Gong) is a workaholic whose marriage has ended in divorce, and who neglects to spend time with his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim). When she insists he goes with her to Busan to visit her mother, he feels guilty enough to do it. They board the train in Seoul, but just before it departs a young woman gets on who proceeds to have convulsions. One of the train attendants goes to help her, but she’s attacked by the woman, and within moments both have become zombies. The pair attack the rest of the passengers in that section of the train. Seok-woo grabs his daughter, and heads as far down the train as he can, while behind them, more and more passengers become victims. Only the fact that the zombies seem unable to work out how to open the doors between compartments keeps the remaining unharmed travellers from suffering the same fate.

As the train journey continues it soon becomes clear that the zombie outbreak is spreading throughout South Korea. The train eventually stops at Daejeon, which appears deserted. But once they’ve got off the train, the passengers discover that they’re not as safe as they thought. Back on the train, they find themselves separated by several zombie infested compartments. One group, including Seok-woo, fight their way through to the other passengers, only to find the others – under the direction of paranoid businessman Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung) – barring them from entering the safety of their compartment. When they finally do get in, they’re forced to quarantine themselves in another section. And then the zombies get in as well…

A major success in South Korea (being the first movie from there in 2016 to be seen by over ten million viewers), Train to Busan takes its zombie cues from movies such as 28 Days Later… (2002) and World War Z (2013). Here the afflicted are fast, rapacious, and all kitted out with special contact lenses. The difference between these and any other zombie is their inability to notice any of the living if the living don’t move, or if they’re all in the dark (Seok-woo and co’s efforts to unite with the other passengers relies on the train travelling through several tunnels). There’s a clear sense of peril as the train embarks on its journey, and director Yeon and writer Park Joo-suk do their utmost to ramp up the tension, killing off the cast with a determined frequency, until only a handful are left (though you’ll probably be able to guess just who quite early on).

There are attempts at underscoring it all with a degree of social commentary, but unless you’re familiar with South Korean life, much of it will pass you by. That said, what will be more comforting is the number of stereotypes on display in terms of the characters, from Ma’s tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside father-to-be, to Kim Eui-sung’s self-serving, Machiavellian businessman. The movie wastes no time on fleshing them out as characters, and instead, focuses on the action, which includes a spectacular train wreck, and several gripping on-board encounters between the unaffected and the (dis)affected. The cast, particularly Jung as Ma’s pregnant wife, and Gong, play their parts with conviction, and the entire mise en scene is given an eerie verisimilitude thanks to Lee Hyung-doek’s crisp, strangely homogensied cinematography.

Rating: 7/10 – an above average entry in the zombie sub-genre of horror movies, Train to Busan has lots of neat directorial flourishes, and isn’t afraid to acknowledge its influences (especially in the final scene); refreshingly direct, and making good use of its largely claustrophobic settings, the movie is solidly made and definitely worth spending two hours in its company.

 

XX (2017) / D: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama / 81m

Cast: Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Peter DaCunha, Melanie Lynskey, Sheila Vand, Casey Adams, Breeda Wool, Angela Trimbur, Morgan Krantz, Christina Kirk, Kyle Allen, Mike Doyle

A portmanteau of four stories wrapped up in an interstitial animated tale, XX opens with Vuckovic’s The Box, in which a young boy, Danny (DaCunha), is allowed a peek inside the box a man on the subway says is a present, and thereafter refuses to eat. His parents (Brown, Watton) think it’s all just a phase, but then his sister starts refusing to eat as well, followed by the father. Come Xmas and all three are wasting away, but seem happy and resigned about it. Soon, the mother is riding the subway in the hope of finding the man with the box, and learning what was inside it. In Clark’s The Birthday Party, a mother (Lynskey) trying to organise her young daughter’s birthday party finds an obstacle to everything going well in the form of her recently dead husband. She tries to hide the body, but interruptions and other problems get in the way until she comes up with an ingenious, but risky, solution – if only no one looks too closely at the giant panda.

The third tale, Benjamin’s Don’t Fall, sees two couples on a trip to the desert. They find an ancient cave painting that depicts a demon. Later that night, one of them, Gretchen (Wool), is attacked. She turns into a murderous creature, and tries to kill her friends. In the final story, Kusama’s Her Only Living Son, Cora (Kirk) is a single mother who wants nothing to do with the father of her only son, Andy (Allen). But as he approaches eighteen, she begins to find that he’s not exactly the child she thinks he is, and that there are dark forces surrounding him, forces that have an agenda for him that she has either suppressed, or is completely unaware of.

XX is being promoted heavily thanks to its four female directors – five if you count Sofia Carrillo’s animated contributions – but it’s an approach that should have been avoided, because what may have sounded like a good gimmick in the planning stages, soon wears out any promise it held by the end of the first story. Now, that’s not to say that the four women behind the camera aren’t necessarily up to the challenge, it’s just that they’re unable to overcome the limitations inherent in the movie’s format. With each tale running under twenty minutes, they’re over before they’ve barely begun, and  the resulting lack of defined characters, predictable storylines, hurried plot developments, and quickly applied scares/gory moments means that there’s very little substance with which to engage the audience.

Benjamin’s tale suffers the most, having four characters that we never get a chance to even halfway care about before they’re being killed off. Elsewhere, credulity is stretched to breaking point by The Birthday Party‘s central conceit, and the parents in The Box not doing more to seek help for their son apart from making just one trip to the doctor’s. The various tales are also short on atmosphere, or a sense of dread, leaving each one to slip by without meeting many of the viewer’s expectations. It’s an admirable effort, but one that tumbles helplessly and expectedly into the pit of fruitless endeavours. The performances are mostly perfunctory (though Lynskey stands out from the crowd), and the look of each tale only occasionally rises above being bland and uninspired. The idea of women doing horror is a sound one, and shouldn’t be discouraged, but on this occasion, it doesn’t work as well as it could.

Rating: 4/10 – four talented directors, four underwhelming tales, one frustrating movie – XX is all this and more, an idea that needed stronger material than that shown; if there is to be an XX 2, then maybe the directors shouldn’t be the writers as well, and maybe the running time should be expanded on, allowing for a greater emphasis on characterisation, atmosphere and increasing tension.

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