Saturday, December 17, 2016

"Train to Busan" and "The Purge: Election Year"

It's been a good year for horror films, so I figured I ought to catch up with some of the more prominent titles this year. I watched "Train to Busan" and "The Purge: Election Year" back to back, and there were some interesting contrasts that I want to talk about. So, I'll be reviewing these two together.

First, "Train to Busan," which is a South Korean zombie film that mostly revolves around the passengers on a bullet train travelling from Seoul to Busan. Gong Yoo plays Seok-woo, a busy hedge fund manager who is the classic overworked dad. He agrees to take his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) to visit his estranged wife in Busan as a birthday gift. Alas, a zombie outbreak turns the trip into a harrowing fight for survival. Other passengers include a pregnant woman, Sung Kyung (Jung Yu-mi), and her husband Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a selfish businessman Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung), and a homeless man (Choi Gwi-hwa).

Director Yeon Sang-ho has a resume full of animated films, which perhaps explains why his visual storytelling is so strong. "Train to Busan" is stuffed full of fun action sequences and compelling visuals. The characters are fairly flimsy, and the zombies are no different from the ones in "28 Days" and the recent remakes of the George Romero films. However, the execution is wonderful. It's hard to predict what's going to happen from moment to moment, and the zombies are a real threat throughout. We really get to look at the zombies, observe their behavior, and appreciate the full effect of their ghoulishness. Unlike in American films, we never see a single zombie killed onscreen, and the heroes never get their hands on any weapon more dangerous than a baseball bat. Ultimately, running is the only option.

Social commentary is an integral part of the best zombie movies, and this is where "Train to Busan" falls a bit flat. Aside from some heavy-handed moralizing about making time for family and not being selfish, there's not much here to really chew on. The cultural specifics of zombie fighting in South Korea are mildly diverting, and the outsized melodrama might be novel for those unfamiliar with Asian films, where this is more common. The characters aren't remotely well defined enough for anything to really resonate on an emotional level. Most of the performances are pretty flat, uninvolving stuff, and the evil businessman in particular is a painfully one-note cartoon character. On a visceral level, however, the movie is way more fun than any American zombie flick I've seen in ages.

Now on to "The Purge: Election Year." I've been curious about this franchise for a while, since it's got an intriguing premise, but the reviews of the earlier films have always been terrible. The third installment, however, looked more promising for having an election storyline, which at least suggested we might get some satire and social commentary. Well, no such luck. The main characters of "Election Year" are indeed a presidential candidate, Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Bennett), and her head of security, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who want to do away with the yearly Purge, the night of no-holds-barred mayhem that is the centerpiece of this particular vision of American dystopia. However, the vast majority of the film is taken up with humdrum action scenes, with only a few brief scenes that illuminate the culture around the Purge.

Other characters include the owner of a deli, Joe (Mykelti Williamson) and his loyal immigrant employee, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) trying to protect their business from looters, and the driver of an unofficial ambulance service, Laney (Betty Gabriel), that operates during the Purge. The literal class warfare is pretty hard to miss, even when the movie makes it plain that the Purge is used by the elites to get rid of undesirables and lower the costs of social services. It's all handled very clumsily, however, and it is very obvious how limited the budget is. I've seen plenty of Blumhouse's microbudget horror films that have all managed at least a semblance of decent production quality. "Election Year" looks positively amateurish, with a couple of disturbing drive-by images the only part of the film that actually quality as horror. And the actress playing the main looter is clearly about ten years too old for her role.

What I found really discouraging, however, was how badly written the film is. All the characters are thin, but the minority characters in particular are awfully stereotyped. It might be because I watched "Keanu" recently, but it really grated that all the black characters talk the way that white people think black people talk. There are no emotional stakes whatsoever, no tension, and certainly not enough action scenes to justify Frank Grillo being around. I liked a couple of the tangential bits of worldbuilding, like the Purge "tourists" flying in to participate, and the Purge Mass where the elites reveal some elaborate justifications for their depravities, but there was far too little of this.

What I'd really like to see is a "Purge" movie with some proper talent and budget behind it. I wonder what Yeon Sang-ho is doing next.

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