Weekend Watching: Black Mass and Train to Busan

Spoilers for Train to Busan.

To say that movies are a product of the culture they are made in is to state the obvious. American films are different to Australian films are different to Chinese films. They share similar modes of communication but the final results all have inherent differences

Take Black Mass. This is a good example of the try-hard Serious American Drama (S.A.D.). Set in Boston. Check. Big name actor with a ‘standout’ performance. Check. Based on a true story. Check. This is an ego vehicle for the director, a chance to show off the talent of Johnny Depp who plays the character James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Aside from Depp’s strong acting and the aesthetically pleasing — if somewhat contrived — camera shots, this is not a movie overly deserving of praise. Indeed, the other acting is sub-par (Australian Joel Edgerton is woeful and unconvincing, partly due to the script) and the plot itself drags along. What need do we have to see yet another example of the criminal underclass in American society? If anything is to be gained it is that the movie depicts yet another example of FBI corruption.

American film makers (or goers?) seem to be obsessed with the ‘true story’, the biopic in particular. To rattle off a few from the last year: Sully, Hidden Figures, Deepwater Horizon, 13 Hours and The Finest Hours. They don’t even have to be particularly enthralling stories, so long as they are true. Sometimes it helps if there is a political message that can be pushed alongside the narrative. Whatever the case, a basis in reality is the underlying feature, and they are used to showcase a director’s talent with the camera or an actor’s dedication to reenactment. As a result we are left with bland money laundering exercises.

Personally, I prefer my stories as unrealistic as possible. They say nothing is truer than fiction, because the truth, the exactness, is whatever is written and you cannot change it. You just have to be willing to go along for the ride.

Train to Busan is a great example. Nominally a zombie movie, it manages to surpass other recent attempts at the genre. It does fast, wave-like zombies far better than the turgid World War Z. It has a stronger emotional element than The Walking Dead. And it manages to bring back a beautiful apocalyptic mise-en-scene reminiscent of 28 Days Later. The story is simple: a despondent father decides to take his daughter to visit her mother (his ex-wife) by taking the train to Busan. This also happens to be the day a mass outbreak of the undead occurs. One infected woman boards the train (women, am I right?) and all Hell breaks loose. But it’s what happens in-between that matters. The fight scenes are fantastically choreographed, and while the acting is pretty stock-standard, there are characters to both boo and cheer. It is a confidently crafted gem of horror-action cinema.

It is also a stringently Korean film, with the flair and attention to detail of Old Boy and The Host. The movie critiques modern Korean culture (with an eye on the West too). The main character, the father, is a fund manager who is too busy and self-centered to pay attention to his daughter. Throughout the course of the movie he redeems himself, and Christ-like even sacrifices himself so that his daughter and others may survive. There is strong discussion of fatherly responsibility and the importance of family and loved ones. The dog-eat-dog world of comfortable liberal democracy goes out the window when your life is on the line. Aesthetically it is a delight as well. The two hour runtime goes by without you noticing: this is a fast-paced plot with little time to breathe. What really impressed me was the originality of some of the set-pieces. If you think you know zombie movies and have seen it all, you will be pleasantly surprised here. Korean cinema has been one to watch for a while now, and Train to Busan continues that legacy.

So what is it about the culture in which a film is made? Is it too much money and not enough focus on the artistry that has dragged Hollywood down? Is it a focus on story-telling as opposed to marketing points that makes foreign films a delight to watch? For me, Hollywood is past its used by date. There is still titillation to be had, but little more. And who would have thought a completely unrealistic zombie movie would have more to teach about life than a true-to-life story?

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