Train to Busan (2016): World War Z on Wheels (Review)

Train to Busan still image

Written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon, Train to Busan is the follow up to the auteur’s animated zombie film “Seoul Station” (2016).  Sadly, the animated film is not available on Netflix – like its sequel – but TtB is a high octane mix of “World War Z” on wheels with a bit of “Snakes on a Plane” thrown in. 

(One could even argue that some of the film’s base plot owes a bit to Kramer vs. Kramer…)

The story revolves around businessman Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) who is estranged from his wife and fighting for sole custody of their daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim).  As things appear to be unravelling in his business life, he agrees to take Soo-an to Busan to see her mother. It is the child’s birthday and this is what she wants to do. 

It is clear that Seok-woo is struggling to cope despite the love he feels for his daughter. As they start their journey, zombies suddenly appear in the city, the train station and on the train itself. It becomes apparent that the undead are flooding the entire country.

As Seok-woo works to keep Soo-an safe he gets help from Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) and his heavily pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung).

Sang-ho Yeon has obviously been influenced heavily by the 2013 Brad Pitt zombie apocalypse film.  His zombies favour the Pitt film’s undead in behavior and amped up speed. Yeon has been even more influenced by the  later film than, say,  the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake of the 1978 Romero classic. The earlier film (remake) featured super energized zombies that were, in essence, damned scary. Much more effective than George’s shambling and slow-footed flesh-eaters.

(Although Romero himself dislikes the speedier undead creatures, the new improved models, that can chase their victims down with insane speeds, are terrifying.)

World War Z gave us zombies that were more akin to Army ants with a sort of group mentality and a intense sort of adrenalized activity that made the James Gunn/Zack Snyder (Yes that Zack Snyder.) zombies seem turtle-like in comparison. Train to Busan also uses the WWZ ant-like behavior to good effect and while using some well established tropes, if you will, that have been established in the long running AMC zombie fest “The Walking Dead.” One being the “sound attracting the undead” cliche that has been a feature of the Robert Kirkwood series from the beginning.

There are other nods to film tropes that are present in other genres. The turning away of survivors by a larger group because they “might be infected” has been used before but its presence in this film fits perfectly.

South Korea has been top of the pack for some time with their “Z-Horror” creations. Train to Busan marks their first foray into the zombie film and, like other auteurs in the country, Sang-ho Yeon has managed to make film that is scary, entertaining and fast paced enough to keep us on the edge of our seats.

The performances are solid across the board. Dong-seok Ma, who was brilliant in The Good, The Bad, The Weird as the nearly silent giant hammer wielding villain in that film, is perfect as the muscle bound soon-to-be father with an attitude. The child actress Soo-an Kim, like other young performers from this country, offers up a truth in her role of the daughter and it helps the film along.

Sang-ho Yeon manages to keep the film moving along well, making the most of the claustrophobic feel of the setting. Unlike the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle of “Snakes on a Plane,” with its unintentional collapse into comedy, (“I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHER****ING SNAKES ON THIS MOTHER****ING PLANE!”) Train to Busan manages to keep things on an even keel.

There are a number of familiar South Korean characters to help the audience feel at home. A douche businessman, some young romantically inclined teenagers who happen to be on the train, a couple of sisters who, despite their bickering, really care for one another and of course the pregnant mother struggling to keep her pushy husband in check.

While the main action is around the estranged father and his daughter, a trio soon forms where the expectant father, Soo-an’s dad and one baseball playing teen (Woo-sik Choi) all try to save their respective female counterparts. 

At one hour and 58 minutes the film could have bogged down in the middle but the action and the storyline keep things moving as quickly as the high octane zombies that are flooding South Korea.

Train to Busan is a solid 5 star film that hits every mark spot on. There are no lags, lapses or mistakes in this satisfying action/horror.  The film is streaming on Netflix and is presented in Korean with English subtitles. There is a good bit of violence, not too much blood and no nudity.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny – Review

Directed by the legendary Woo-Ping Yuen from a screenplay by The Forbidden Kingdom scribe John Fusco, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is a epic return to the world of the original film directed by Ang Lee way back in 2000.

Donnie Yen as Silent Wolf

Directed by the legendary Woo-Ping Yuen from a screenplay by The Forbidden Kingdom scribe John Fusco, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is a epic return to the world of the original film directed by Ang Lee way back in 2000.  Before looking at the film and its plot and players, it has to be said that there is literally beauty in each and every frame of this “Western” Asian drama.

Yuen and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel manage to make this second journey into Qing China look beyond sumptuous, as each set piece and scene almost bleeds with enough colour to drown the viewer, yet, does not distract from the story or action.  The use of light and careful melding of CG into each frame allows this offering to feel magical and almost Shakespearean.

The casting of Donnie Yen,  to play opposite the iconic Michelle Yeoh is almost serendipitous as it is almost pre-ordained. What with Yen recently killing it in the Ip Man trilogy.  Not that Yen is not already well known as a sensation in Hong Kong as an action star and stunt performer, but the timing is fortuitous to say the least.

Yeoh reprises her role as Yu Shu Lien, who survived the first film along with Sir Te, who is played by a different actor this time around. New arrivals, in terms of actors portraying Chinese martial arts heroes are truly global. Yen plays Silent Wolf, a man thought to have been killed by Lee’s character.

The plot entails protecting the “sword of destiny” as whoever wields the blade is un-defeatable.  Dai wants the sword and Lien, along with her former love Silent Wolf, fight to keep it out of Hades’ hands.

Harry Shum Jr. (who plays a rather larger than life magician in The Shadowhunters on Freeform) plays TieFang a chap playing on the wrong team at the start of the film. Said team is run by Hades Dai (played by Jason Scott Lee) who makes a pretty impressive villain despite not having too much screen time till the very end of the film. Australian actress Natasha Liu Bordizzo makes her debut as Snow Vase, the female warrior who shares a complex history with TieFang.

Also from “across the big pond” is American Actress JuJu Chan, who is not only a real-life martial arts master but a performer who has been called the new Michelle Yeoh and is also compared to Bruce Lee, who plays Silver Dart Shi. 

The wirework is spot on and the fight scenes choreographed with style, grace and, in the tavern fight scene, comedic overtones. Silent Wolf goes to a tavern to place an ad for soldiers to join his army.  After a group of thug-like mercenaries try to force Yen’s character to take them on, the five heroes who do join Silent Wolf step in.

Each hero states their name and where they are best known. After each specialist finishes the last “Turtle Ma” gives his name and says that he is well-known, “in this tavern.” The fight itself is beautifully set up to be breathtaking and funny. Even the tavern’s female proprietor takes part in the battle.

On the opposite end of the action scale, the battle between TieFang, Silent Wolf and Iron Crow (Roger Yuan) on the frozen lake is balletic in scope and presentation. The presentation is a perfect blend of ice skating and martial arts as never seen before. It is,  much like the rest of  the film’s battles; beautiful and breathtaking.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny has elements that feel distinctly like an American western.  There is even a touch of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which was a homage of sorts to the westerns of John Ford) apparent in certain scenes. Whether this is down to the screenplay or Woo-Ping Yuen knowing how to appeal to western audiences is unclear.

The film was made to appeal outside the usual Hong Kong cinematic demographic. The Netflix film was released simultaneously on the streaming website and in cinemas.  There are versions in English and in Cantonese, according to the streaming site.  Rather interestingly, if one watches the “Cantonese” version it is apparent that this has been dubbed, just like the English version.

Regardless of which version one watches, the film delivers in entertainment, action, romance and the spirit of fighting and dying for honor and loyalty.

This is a real 5 star film that is epic in scope and presentation. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny  presents a fantasy version of martial arts that feels real yet magical. Just the fight sequences alone make this well worth watching.

A Blood Pledge (2008) Whispering Corridors 5 Review

The last in a series about South Korean all-girl schools, A Blood Pledge also known as Whispering Corridors 5, is the only one set obviously in a Catholic School. It is interesting to note that each film in the series, which are all considered part of the franchise, has a different director and writer.

All have similar themes, an emphasis on friendship and betrayal of same, fierce competition for grades/scores in class, which in turn leads to even more competition to get into a good university.

Girl crushes, teen pregnancy, Korean teenage girls portrayed as bitchy, bullying and overly obsessed with money and class, dysfunctional family units, and betrayal all are part of the franchise formula along with curses, urban myths and of course supernatural occurrences.

The first three films in the series are really the best. In my honest opinion, as the “sequels” continued they borrowed freely from whatever new trends in Asian horror were prevalent at the time of filming or when writing screenplays.

A Blood Pledge is directed by Jong Yong-Lee, who was actually a co-writer on the superior 2002 film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Yong-Lee also wrote the screenplay for A Blood Pledge and the film marks his second time in the director’s chair, his second credit for writing and first feature length film.

Now, despite what IMDb maintains the storyline is; it is not about FOUR friends who make a suicide pact. There are only three who decide to swear an oath that they will die before their time. The mistake seems to have been brought about because a fourth joins the group later, after the blood oath, or pledge, and she is the only one who perishes.

Leader of an elite trio of friends, Eugene, or Eun-Jo, is a manipulative little schemer who does not like losing at anything. As she has been knocked off her spot as student with the highest grade average, mainly because of her “out of school” romance with the rich love rat Ki-ho, she comes up with a plan to knock current leader Yoo-Jin out of the top spot. Her grades have slipped so much that she is no longer in the list of top ten best students.

Eugene kicks an old established member out of her group and woos Yoo-Jin’s best mate Soy into her little trio, with the idea that the former straight A student will become so upset that her grades will drop. The plan backfires when Ki-ho goes after the new girl and in the process, dumps Eugene and impregnates Soy.

Oops!

She then plans to kill Soy, win back Ki-ho and resume her place as top straight A student. Unfortunately everything goes wrong when Yoo-Jin goes over the side of a school building instead of Soy and dies. The dead girl soon begins appearing and her younger sister keeps approaching Soy for answers.

The school, broken into various cliques and class loyalties, is a hotbed of rumors, theories, backbiting and mudslinging between the different factions.

A Blood Pledge is entertaining. Sadly, though, it is not a fitting end to the brilliant trilogy that started the whole thing off. While it does not borrow quite so heavily from the franchise as Voice did for example, the film feels like a poor relative to the series and seems as though it was meant to be a “made for TV” version of the franchise.

It is confusing and hard to follow at times, mainly because of flashbacks and the fact that Eugene, Eun-Jo and Soy resemble each other so much. It would have helped if the director had at least changed their hairstyles a bit. At times other events transpire that never have a real explanation of why or what exactly had been done. The locker scene in particular, you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Another example is the “evil mother of the rich love rat” car scene. Good stuff, but it did not really fit the motif here…

I would recommend watching A Blood Pledge, and Voice actually, just so you can finish the franchise off. Then sit down and watch the first three and enjoy the best the series has to offer.

That’s it from me this week so until next time, keep watching the movies and have fun!

Here is the video from my YouTube channel where I talk about the film. Enjoy:

22 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Cold Fish (2010) Sono Tips the Horror Scales

DVD cover of Cold Fish

The 2010 film Cold Fish, co-written and directed by Sion Sono, aka Shion Sono, is based upon “true events.” In 2001 two dog breeders were sentenced for poisoning several customers and disposing of the bodies. Known as the “Saitama serial murders of dog lovers” as the crime took place in the Saitama Prefecture, the film version of the real criminals and their horrific deeds differ in that the “pets” on offer in Cold Fish are, by evidence of the title, fish.

Tropical fish in fact. At the start of the film Nobuyuki Syamoto, his second wife and teenage daughter are living over his small tropical fish shop. The teen is caught red-handed shoplifting in a store and the manager calls her father, Nobuyuki. He and Mrs. Syamoto go to the scene of the crime and as the store’s representative threatens legal action, a middle aged business man intercedes and talks the manager into not pressing charges.

Nobuyuki and his entire family then have their lives taken over by Yukio Murata, his wife Aiko and Tsui-Tsui another accomplice of Murata’s. Syamoto’s daughter goes to work and live with Murata, who has his own tropical fish shop with a bevy of teenage “troubled” girls who are there already. After becoming involved with the Murata’s Nobuyuki soon finds out that Yukio is a murderous psychopath. The younger shop owner is pushed into helping Yukio and Aiko get rid of a victim’s body and he gets caught up in the couple’s deadly game of making people become “invisible.”

While some things were changed considerably in the retelling of the real crime’s details the disposal methods where the victims were made invisible are exactly the same as those in the Saitama case. Sono specializes in films which concentrate on the more bizarre sections of Japan. This has led to an inevitable comparison to Takashi Miike.

Certainly Sono does have the same tendency as Miike to use copious amounts of claret in his death scenes, but he lacks the complete eccentricity of using the parts of Japan that one does not normally see. For example, Miike’s apparently hermaphrodite “Schoolgirl” in Fudoh: The New Generation or the villainess in Audition as well as other films feature the “underbelly” of Japan and Sono may come close but he still has a way to go in the Miike department.

Most of Sono’s work seems to be taking a sly dig at Japanese societal mores while turning most of his horror films into black comedies. The director’s take on these true life murders is no different. He makes his characters all that bit more eccentric and because of this the more horrific scenes take on a dark comedic slant. He does insure that the tragic elements remain. In the scene where the murderous Yukio is dying in the back of Nobuyuki’s car, the ramblings of the man reveal the horrific facts of his childhood.

Sono specializes in this juxtaposition of elements in his films. EXTE: Hair Extensions has a antagonist who is undoubtedly the oddest villain ever seen in a horror film. Singing about hair, his fixation, while the stuff engulfs his entire apartment is one of the weirdest and funniest scenes in the movie.

Cold Fish does not offer the same sort of comedic moments in its retelling of murder and a small dysfunctional family unit. There are scenes which can be described as amusing but not overtly funny. The surreal nature of the film overrules any other feelings that the story and the action may attempt to induce.

The viewer really feels as though they are trapped with Nobuyuki as he vacillates between fear and revulsion although his decision to go along with the whole thing instead of running down to the nearest police station does defy belief. At one point the local cops stop him outside Yukio’s massive fish store and question the hapless accomplice.Amazingly, the reluctant participant says nothing.

Sion Sono has delivered yet another quirky film with Cold Fish. The movie won several awards, not least of which was Denden (Yukio Murata) getting the Best Actor award from the Japanese Academy for his portrayal of the serial killing fish shop owner. This is a fascinating film and well worth the trouble spent (for those who do not like subtitled films) reading the English translations of the original dialogue. A real 5 out of 5 stars for entertainment.

A word of warning: The subtitles on the trailer below are slightly different from the DVD I watched.

EXTE aka Hair Extensions (2007) Hirsute Black Comedy

Poster for Hair Extensions aka EXTEEXTE OR Hair Extensions is a 2007 black comedy horror film made by the Shion Shono (who made the “based on a true story” horror film Cold Fish in 2010) and in EXTE Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale, Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2) plays very much against type as a hairdresser in training who must take on a madman and a lot of cursed hair extensions to save herself and her niece.

At the start of the film two Japanese character actors who seem to be in pretty much every J-Horror film ever made open a shipping container because it smells. Upon opening the thing, they discover it is full of human hair. A body is also found and taken off to the police morgue.

Once it arrives, assistant and hairdresser(?) Tatsuo Sugarawa, played by Ken Mitsuichi (Audition, 13 Assassins) becomes obsessed with the bald-headed corpse and takes her home. Once there, he discovers that she is continuing to grow hair which he cuts off and sells, or gives away, to local hairdressers.

Unfortunately the hair is possessed and whomever gets one of the extensions soon dies, some after they’ve killed someone else. It seems the hair contains memories of the dead young lady who was murdered for her organs. Yuko and Yuki are roommates, the first a hairdresser in training and the latter a dancer in training.

Yuko (Kuriyami) is an optimistic, funny and good natured girl whose dream is to become a professional stylist. Her sister, Kiyomi is a nasty bit of work who abuses her daughter Mami and drops her off with Yuko when she wants.

As the hair begins claiming more victims, Tatsuo becomes more and more consumed with his dead girl and he begins behaving bizarrely. The film has its funny moments and other times there are scenes which are surreally entertaining.

In terms of the Asian fascination with long black hair, this movie is the ultimate homage to all things hirsute and creepy. Some of the scenes with the hair extensions are difficult to watch and others just are just flat out horrible. Despite this urge to turn away from the screen, or to at least watch through one’s fingers, overall the movie is more funny than scary.

It has to be said that the scenes with the girl after she is caught by the organ traffickers (with its Christmas music background) are more sad than terrifying and while these are disturbing to watch, the film does fall firmly into black comedy territory.

For those who do not like subtitled films, EXTE comes with dubbing that, to be honest, is not too horrible. At least the American market one features “normal” voices and not those cut glass English accents of The Grudge fame. A definite winner from the chap who brought the brilliant Cold Fish to screen.