Train to Busan

Train to Busan sounds like a bad prog rock album, something that was probably recorded live in 1977 and featuring a synthesizer the size of a small bachelor apartment.

What it is though, is a South Korean horror film set on a train, which against all odds, actually manages to reproduce the tedium of rail travel.

Wildly overpraised on all fronts, Train to Busan actually received commendation for what the New York Times called its “class warfare,” as if this is the first time in movie history where a guy with calloused hands took a slick city dweller to task, making him a better man in the process.

Seok-woo is the latter. We know he’s unsympathetic, because like in Hollywood, people in certain occupations come with a set of tedious expectations: as a fund manager, ergo, he’s a leech on society. If this were a rom-com, he’d have a writer (the noblest creature on earth, second only to an inner-city kindergarten teacher) rescue him from a life of crass materialism.

He’s a terrible father, because…see above. He is taken his sullen daughter to see her mom as his marriage has dissolved. As part of a birthday gift, he takes her on a…Train to Busan…

Suddenly, a convulsing young woman boards the train with strange striations on her leg, a makeshift tourniquet wrapped around her upper thigh.

And it’s time for another stock character to sound the alarm, a vagrant warning that people are dying (the homeless are either dispensers of wisdom, or crazy, but seldom anything in between when it comes to the silver screen).

Turns out Mr. No-Fixed-Address is correct!

There’s an infection, and it’s spread farther than the afflicted girls’ gams, that is to say, throughout South Korea’s southern coast. News broadcasts start to report zombie outbreaks country-wide. Now it’s up to the passengers, which include the elderly, some evil corporate types, a baseball team, cheerleaders, etc, to save themselves from rampaging zombies.

Much has been made of these zombies. They’re fast, they’re plentiful, they’re loud…but ultimately they’re tedious.

Train to Busan, like a locomotive, works on one level, and one level alone. Never have so many sliding doors been slammed into the faces of the rampaging undead. It’s not gory enough either, and there’s a noticeable lack of spirit.

**1/2 (out of 5)

[Hop on board and hear our Train to Busan podcast discussion]

The Challenge

the_challenge1982A down on his luck boxer who needs a big score to get himself back on his feet is the plot to about 1,000 genre films from the 40s to the 60s. In The Challenge, the challenge as it were was to do something different with this trope.

In the case of this 1982 John Frankenheimer actioner, it’s a gig escorting a rare family heirloom from Los Angeles to Kyoto, Japan.

The piece in question, a samurai sword, was exchanged for a pack of smokes in World War II, and an enterprising GI brought it to LA. Its rightful owners want it back and the scion of the family, wheelchair-bound Toshio, hires a washed up California prizefighter to be its keeper.

Wearing the gloves is Scott Glenn as rugged Murphy, lured by the (still) impressive sum of $500/day, to smuggle the weapon in a golf bag through customs.

Unfortunately, the sword is not the genuine article. It’s a set up.

Others have their eyes on the prize, including Toshio’s evil uncle, Hideo, a business big-wig with a sprawling corporate compound that’d shame Facebook headquarters, featuring a slot where an ancient samurai sword should be…uh…slotted?

By this point, Hideo’s fully Americanized henchman Ando has unceremoniously tossed Toshio head over wheels out the back of a moving van and is threatening to kill Murphy if he doesn’t provide details about the weapon’s whereabouts.

But damned if he knows.

Turns out finding the real sword involves infiltrating a samurai school, run by none other than the legendary Toshiro Mifune as Toru Yoshida.

Where do Murphy’s loyalties lie? Does he bow to goon pressure and swipe the sword?

Co-written by John Sayles, the man behind three of our site faves, Piranha, The Howling and Alligator, The Challenge is fairly engaging stuff. Sayles keeps things moving at a nice pace, introducing lug Murphy to the decorous, simple pleasures of Japanese dojo life (we imagine Steven Seagal* enjoying this too for a bit, before that gave way to the pleasures of the Japanese buffet).

And in The Challenge, Murphy is, of course, bested by some righteous black belt artistry and demands that he be trained in the deadly arts before being swayed by the ways of the samurai.

And after being thrown out of the temple, he has to prove himself to get back in their good graces by withstanding burial up to the neck with no food nor drink for days.

The Challenge is by no means a classic, but does feature some kick-butt kendo, and some kyudo (Japanese archery).

*** (out of 5)

[Editors’ note: the movie is also notable for something else: aikido choreography by the bloated ponytail himself, then billed as “Steve” Seagal.