Trainload Of Cliched Fun

SILA SKROLL KE BAWAH UNTUK VERSI BAHASA MALAYSIA

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I must admit, a few years ago, I disliked South Korean movies. Back in the early 2000s, there were only a few obvious choices that I liked, notably films by Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. I didn’t care much for Lee Chang-dong or Kim Ki-duk or Hong Sang-soo.

My main complaint was that South Korean films didn’t know when or how to end. The filmmakers seemed too enamoured with their own work, as if they didn’t want their films to end at all. Much as I love Oldboy (2003), I thought the ending was unnecessarily drawn out. Only Bong seemed to know when the end credits should start rolling.

Then came what seemed to be like a second wave of good commercial fare with the likes of The Chaser, and later I Saw the Devil, The Yellow Sea and many others. Now, South Korean commercial cinema seemed to have settled into a comfortably assured tone, and the films were no longer long drawn-out affairs. They were tightly edited and well-paced. And they had great characters and stories.

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While South Korean films have been missing from our cinemas here, for some unfathomable reason, they seem to be making a comeback now. Recently, time-crossing thriller The Phone was released here, and now it’s the blockbuster hit Train to Busan. Word has it that puzzle horror film The Wailing will be released here next month. So, here’s hoping there are more to come.

Meanwhile, there’s been incredible hype surrounding Train to Busan, with unprecedented sneak previews way ahead of its official release last week. It’s been playing to full houses for a couple of weeks now, and looks set to continue its brisk business.

However, let’s face it, there’s not much left that hasn’t been done before in the zombie sub-genre of horror. The sub-genre itself has seeped into other genres – romance, comedy, drama, you name it. It would seem the living dead can fit any shoe.

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Train to Busan can be described as a humanist zombie action-drama, and really, it offers nothing new. As if well aware of having its job cut out, the film piles on the action relentlessly while also slapping on thick melodrama and emotional seasoning.

There’s no George Romero-type social commentary (although there’s a humorous jab at governments) and there’s no real mystery as to how or why the zombies are being created. The film is even populated by stock characters – the father who works too hard and neglects his family, the loveable rogue, the bad guy whose only concern is his own survival. And it’s also incredibly predictable. You know what’s going to happen to the teen couple in love, or the comeuppance that’s inevitably coming for the bad guy.

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So, why is Train to Busan such a hit?

One of the things that the film cleverly does is to go back to the basics. It pares down everything to the barest, minimal essentials. It doesn’t concern itself too much with subtext or metaphor. It just tells a simple story, that of a band of survivors trapped in an enclosed space, as time is ticking away and danger is always just steps away. And it plays a lot with the horror convention of “Don’t go down to the basement!”, where the audience is always ahead of the characters. (There’s even a scene straight out of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot.)

It’s the perfect Friday night drive-in movie.

As such, it could also get terribly tiresome, especially for those too familiar with the sub-genre trappings. Like me, for instance. Only in its final third does the film generate any real interest for the weary moviegoer, when it begins to have an inkling of possible issues bigger than just mere humans escaping from zombies. And that’s when Train to Busan turns into “Snowpiercer with Zombies.”

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The elements of hysteria, paranoia and class discrimination come together quite nicely as a universal allegory for human fallibility, if only for a brief interlude. But it’s not nearly enough to balance the mass-appeal action, thrills and melodrama that dominate much of the film.

If anything, Train to Busan proves that sometimes you don’t need to intellectualise anything but just go for the jugular with good pacing, tempo and just enough substance to hold everything together, to craft a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t really dumb things down for the audience. While it’s not a masterpiece by any measure, it delivers the commercial goods, and is a hell of a fun movie to watch with a good crowd.

Another thing that Train to Busan proves is that we often forget that movies, especially the mass-appeal ones, are a communal experience. While big spectacle and 3D may warrant good reason to spend time in front of a big screen, it’s Train to Busan‘s kind of communal cinema – a streamlined moviegoing that has no other goal than to be engaged by a simple, shared tale – that has bypassed our collective consciousness far too often these days.

 

VERSI BAHASA MALAYSIA

Saya mengaku, beberapa tahun sebelum ini, saya memang tidak minat dengan filem-filem Korea Selatan. Di permulaan tahun 2000, tidak banyak pilihan bagi saya, hanya filem-filem arahan Bong Joon-ho dan Park Chan-wook. Saya langsung tidak minat menonton filem-filem Lee Chang-dong, Kim Ki-duk atau Hong Sang-soo.

Bagi saya, filem-filem Korea Selatan ada satu masalah besar. Filem-filem ini seperti tiada penghujung, seolah-olah pembikin filem Korea Selatan semuanya terlalu sayangkan filem mereka sendiri hingga tidak mahu filem mereka berakhir. Walaupun Oldboy adalah salah sebuah filem favourite saya, saya rasa endingnya juga terlalu panjang. Hanya Bong seorang sahaja yang mampu memberi ending yang memuaskan.

Tetapi selepas era itu, kualiti filem-filem Korea Selatan semakin meningkat, dengan karya seperti The Chaser, I Saw the Devil, The Yellow Sea dan sebagainya. Kini, sinema komersial mereka semakin bagus, dengan suntingan dan jalan cerita yang baik dan juga watak-watak yang menarik.

Di Malaysia, filem-filem Korea Selatan sudah lama tidak ditayang di layar lebar, tetapi sekarang ini keadaan mungkin akan berubah. Baru-baru ini, filem thriller The Phone ada ditayang di pawagam, dan sekarang diikuti oleh filem blockbuster Train to Busan. Dikatakan filem horror The Wailing juga akan ke pawagam bulan depan. Kita harap lebih banyak filem Korea akan dapat dinikmati di layar lebar selepas ini.

Train to Busan pula telah menjana banyak hype, dan telahpun ditayang secara sneak preview dua minggu sebelum dirilis secara rasmi. Panggung memang penuh tiap-tiap hari.

Tetapi, perihal subgenre zombie ini, tidak banyak yang boleh diperbaharui lagi kerana sudah terlalu banyak filem dan cerita zombie sebelum ini. Subgenre ini juga telah meresap ke dalam genre-genre yang lain seperti kisah cinta, komedi, drama, dan sebagainya. Mayat hidup memang berguna, ya!

Train to Busan boleh dikatakan sebuah action-drama yang bersifat humanist, dan sebenarnya tidak ada apa yang baru yang dibawa oleh filem ini. Mungkin pembikin filem ini juga sedar akan ketandusan idea dalam subgenre ini, maka diperbanyakkan adegan action dan dikuatkan dengan elemen melodrama dan emosi.

Tiada komentari sosial seperti filem zombie George Romero (walaupun ada sedikit kritikan mengenai kerajaan) dan tidak juga dimisterikan bagaimana wabak zombie berlaku. Karakter-karakter dalam filem ini juga sangat klise – seorang ayah yang berkerja keras sampai mengabaikan tanggungjawabnya terhadap keluarga, seorang “loveable rogue”, orang jahat yang hanya mementingkan dirinya sendiri. Ceritanya juga senang diramal. Kita sudah boleh tahu apa akan terjadi kepada pasangan kekasih muda atau orang jahat itu.

Jadi, kenapa Train to Busan sangat hit?

Filem ini menggunakan cara “back to basics”, dengan elemen-elemen asas mengikut keperluan jalan cerita. Ia tidak terlalu menitikberatkan subteks atau metafora. Ia hanya sebuah cerita yang mudah difahami, mengenai sekumpulan penumpang keretapi yang terperangkap, yang cuba mengharungi bahaya zombie dengan setiap detik menentukan antara hidup atau mati. Dan ia banyak menggunakan konvensyen filem horror di mana penonton lebih mengetahui apa yang akan berlaku manakala karakter-karakternya tidak. (Ada juga adegan yang sama seperti satu adegan dalam Salem’s Lot arahan Tobe Hooper.)

Ia seperti filem yang ditayang waktu malam di “drive-in theatre” di Amerika.

Ia mungkin juga boleh membosankan sesetengah penonton yang sudah serik dengan gaya subgenre zombie, seperti saya. Hanya selepas lebih dari setengah jalan, barulah ceritanya mula menjadi betul-betul menarik, bila karakter-karakternya mula menghadapi isu-isu yang lebih besar. Pada masa inilah juga, Train to Busan menjadi seperti “Snowpiercer dengan wabak zombie.”

Elemen-elemen hysteria, paranoia dan diskriminasi menjadi alegori tentang sifat manusia, walaupun untuk hanya seketika. Tetapi aspek ini masih tidak sekuat elemen-elemen aksi, suspens dan melodrama yang memenuhi filem ini.

Sebenarnya, Train to Busan membuktikan bahawa filem bukannya perlu bersifat intelektual selalu, tetapi kadang-kadang tempo, suntingan dan jalan cerita yang bagus sudah memadai untuk menghasilkan sebuah filem yang menghiburkan tanpa membodohkan penonton. Ia bukanlah sebuah filem masterpiece, tetapi ia cukup memenuhi kehendak komersial dan adalah sebuah filem yang sangat sesuai untuk tontonan beramai-ramai.

Kadang-kadang kita lupa bahawa filem adalah sesuatu yang kita alami secara berkumpulan, bila kita ke pawagam. Memang filem-filem “big spectacle” dan 3D adalah antara sebab filem perlu ditonton di layar besar, tetapi filem seperti Train to Busan mengingatkan kita kepada “pengalaman bersama” di mana kita ke panggung untuk dihiburkan oleh cerita yang cukup mudah untuk kita fahami dan nikmati bersama.

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