Let me make it clear from the start.
I did not join the first wave of Filipino audiences who were all too excited to rush to the nearest cinema where the Korean blockbuster TRAIN TO BUSAN was showing. It was not an urgent need, a mind-boggling feverish imperative that I see the movie not like Suicide Squad (which ended being such a bummer anyway) or SUPERMAN VERSUS BATMAN (which was an even bigger bummer).
It was not that nadala na ako since FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (although not exactly great and will not be used in the discussion of existentialism in cinema) was still quite a joy to watch even if some of my hypercritical friends believe it is a stupid and naive movie with nothing going for it except for the actors, especially Meryll Streep. Eh, yon na nga, ano? There are other intelligent movies that have nothing going for it but the intelligence so let me enjoy my guilty pleasures of loving Meryl.
No, there was no guilty pleasure at all in TRAIN TO BUSAN because I hate zombie movies.
There. I have said it. I hate zombie movies.
Yeah, long ago in a galaxy far, far away there were movies like THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE EVIL DEAD which I found cheesy and shocking rather than scary.
Maybe because I have a high standard for scary because I did not think THE EXORCIST was scary either. Just disgusting and shocking with a lot of green vomit and Linda Blair's head turning completely around like that of an abused doll. Or all these so-called horror movies that are actually masters of editing and sound effects --- or special effects where in you are grossed out of your mind more than being scared out of your pants. Include the entire FRIDAY THE 13TH, HALLOWEEN, and SAW series.
In short, I will not go out of the house, dress up and pay more than two hundred pesos so that I can be sick in the stomach and convince myself that I was entertained while being grossed out.
Honestly, I do not understand this millennial preoccupation for the supernatural --- specifically centering on vampires and zombies.
I was not enthralled by that whole TWILIGHT series maybe because throughout the franchise the leading lady looked like she was suffering from menstrual cramps: I don't know maybe that's just me. Then there was Edward Cullen's acid-bleached Joker-like skin that looked like he overdosed on mainline glutathione to turn into a snow-white albino. Against this was Taylor Lautner's pug-nosed overgrown canine that was more of a study of being buffed than turning lupine. I watched the first two of the film franchise and waited for the HBO screenings for the rest.
Then there are the zombies.
Who would not remember (and cherish) one of the first great music videos that featured Michael Jackson as a zombie? O sige. That was charming despite the make-up of rotting bodies dancing in unison in what eventually turned out to be iconic choreography steps imitated, repeated and celebrated by dance tribes on TV. Then there was the hip and funny ZOMBIELAND that you never take too seriously and best appreciated as tongue in cheek ... before Brad Pitt starred in WORLD WAR Z.
And while all these movies are providing alternative entertainment to the conflagration of superhero projects, there was THE WALKING DEAD showing on TV and steadily holding onto its ratings. As a matter of fact, that zombie TV show has already acquired a cult following as it has kept its loyal audience season after season. This was followed by other TV shows that featured zombies .... and, honestly, it has reached a point of "boresville."
(I also remember a time in Filipino movies when there were so many zombies, some of which were included in the more popular Luciano B. Carlos movies ... and the really funny Jade Castro work ZOMBADINGS. Remember that?)
I am not quite sure though if THE WALKING DEAD has the same audience share as ANG PROBINSIYANO but there is that market of Netflix and internet-addicted viewers who will swear their loyalty and can win any Trivial Pursuit questions regarding any of the characters and events in that show. But as for me, uhm, stilk not interested.
I cannot understand the poetic justice in people eating people. It is like a really warped interpretation of the Streisand song about people needing people as being the luckiest. And I am not a fan of rotting skin prosthetic magic that is best appreciated during Halloween. If this is still an extension of the millennial fascination for dystopia, apocalyptic scenarios and immortality, then I am not in that market.
So that is why I found it all so odd that:
(a) A Korean subtitled movie about a train ride to Busan with zombies in the next coach should warrant so much attention.
(b) An Asian movie with no big star recognizable --- not even in the K-Pop Universe for that matter should draw in the audience and
(c) A movie that took off with a modest start at the box office should pick up strength even until its second weekend.
Even if my nephews were cajoling me to watch it with them on the first weekend run, I dilly-dallied and eventually gave in to my sloth mode by having a marathon screening of the second season of the Netflix TV series PENNY DREADFUL which is pretty gross at certain points as well.
But the momentum of TRAIN TO BUSAN never ceased.
Everyone was talking and raving about it --- with some saying that THE WALKING DEAD could learn a lesson or two from it --- so I decided to finally watch it by myself. Yes, by myself.
When I posted my plans in my Twitter account, somebody sent me an alarming private message that went, "Please don't watch it alone." Now that bothered me, triggering the fear that the movie is so engaging that at a certain point the person seated next to me will discard his bucket of popcorn and go for my neck. Then again I imagine that this sort of message could have only come from a diehard fan who has not been fully debriefed after his experience with zombies who now opt for living human flesh rather than kimchi.
And so I watched. And at the end of more than one hundred minutes of Korean entertainment, I finally understood what the brouhaha was all about.
Ah, OK, I said to myself. The unabated success of this Korean thrill ride can be attributed to so many factors which Filipino producers can learn from in order to finally evolve from this seeming terminal preoccupation for rom-coms, love teams and more-of-the-same.
TRAIN TO BUSAN literally has everything you can imagine in a commercial movie.
Not only does this movie prove (as another friend pointed out) that telecommunication system in Korea is close to invincible ( kasi even as entire cities are being infected by flesh-chomping, gurgling and indecently salivating zombies, their cell phones are still working! Wala pang dead spots, ha?) but even their train systems work with utmost precision. Maybe our local phone companies and the operators of our railways can also pick up a lesson or two from this movie.
In this country, you do not need zombies to screw up the trains or the phones --- it has become part of everyday life. But then enough of that.
If there is anything Filipino producers should learn about this movie, then take it from the same people who gave you Sandara Park as an international star and fed you K-Pop and Korean telenovelas as part of your daily TV menu. So here goes:
(1) It is all about the story. No, that stands corrected. Put all the ingredients in there to create a narrative stew more delicious than bulgogi. You may be dealing with a story about the living dead, but it is still the living heroes who the audience must latch onto. And if you are having problems about your demographics ... then put all the stories in there to cater to the entire spectrum of your projected audience. It is like bachoy meets bulgogi.
(2) It is all about the characters. The focus is about this really busy dysfunctional father blessed with a precocious daughter who has a talent for meeting all the right people at all the wrong times and whimpering in between. With cold and confused Dad delivering cute and vulnerable daughter to her mother in Busan --- also add the subplot of an equally emotionally fragile grandmother who they left behind and eventually turned nightwalker only after she professed how much she loved everybody on the planet earth on the phone.
If that is not enough, also throw in beautiful and frail pregnant woman with a bear of a husband. Mommy-to-be (in her most vulnerable state) can only bring out the hero in this boor of a giant who can beat the rotting flesh out of any zombie by mere power of his biceps. And if this love story is not enough, throw in some kids who look like they stepped out of a Korean telenovela, garbed in their varsity uniforms with a single cheerleader girl who becomes the object of young love affection of an awkward geek who bumbles and stumbles in trying to express his admiration for Miss Pep Squad. But wait ... there is more.
Why don't we throw in two old women who are perhaps the weakest and most helpless ... as well as the head of the train attendants who is such a gullible bozo and the train conductor who is out there to save everybody by making sure the train got to Busan.
With a coterie of characters such as these, you have covered literally all of the market ... including the audiences watching in the next two cinemas beside the one where TRAIN TO BUSAN is showing.
(3) It is about the villain. Come to think of it, the villains are not the zombies because they were mere victims of infection, brought about by the carelessness (and greed) of some biochemical company where Daddy-of-whimpering-child works as a wheeler-dealer. The really bad guy is this rich businessman who buys his way through everything and does not even have the decency (humility not considered) to stop foisting his influence and wealth. But then again, as another fan of the movie said, ang ganda-ganda kasi may redeeming value pati yung villain. Maiiyak ka kasi in the end you will say, "Ah, kaya naman pala ..." and gain almost universal wisdom about knowing the source of his evil.
Oh, yeah --- in the end, the villain redeemed himself not by being a hero but by verbalizing that he ain't that bad really. He was just scared and wanted to go home. Ah, OK. Nakakaiyak rin naman pala ... which also leads to another great lesson.
(4) It is all about the heart. Grabe this movie talaga, ha? You are clutching your heart because of the non-stop suspense of all these zombies doing very zombie things --- but you also hold onto your chest because of all the heart-tugging moments, those stories as each of the characters from Daddy and daughter, Bear and Soon-to-be-Mommy ... and even those frisky kids who are so cute and kilig worthy trying to survive yet another zombie apocalypse.
The important thing here is something we Filipinos know right from our living rooms. It is about engaging your audiences with stories --- regardless of how sappy, how corny, how overdone and overcooked --- to be able to hold into their interest.
This is the stuff that all the telenovelas fed to us --- with some of the best ones from our Asian neighbors --- like Korea. In other words, the very nerve of this movie is something already familiar with Filipinos because we are exposed and perhaps also infected by the Korean sensibility in entertainment. We also have become zombies to this kind of pagpapasaya.
And finally ...
(5) It is about giving the audience their money's worth. Susmaryosep! I told myself. Walang katapusan ang pelikulang ito! Layers and layers and layers of events are thrown right the audience as the zombies and the humans try to outrun and outwit each other only to be confronted by enough twists and turns to make a movie out of a Rubik's cube. Just when you thought they have finally put out the landing gear, the movie goes up again for another series of suspenseful events until practically everyone is annihilated.
But then that is what you call sulit na sulit as far as the two hundred pesos or more you paid for your movie ticket. It is only three minutes before the closing credits that you get to breathe freely and realize that finally the movie has ended --- only after another minute or so of suspense.
You are only sure that the movie has ended because the little girl is singing. But when you have reached that point, you are also so numbed by what you've gone through that you cannot even react to the cheesiness of the conclusion. You are marinated as well as drained by determined and relentless entertaining. You just wish that beyond that tunnel lies Busan.
So what can Filipino producers learn from this? Oh, a lot. Maybe the next time they do a horror movie, they should not rely on the marvels of computer generated images or the same-same sort of plot. Maybe they should realize that the marquee value of big stars' names may create branding --- but even that is not enough to sustain a movie if the material sucks or has been seen before, done to death and merely repackaged to look new. Maybe producers can learn that if Korea can now create a big box office hit in mainstream cinema outside their shores, maybe we could do so as well ... and you really do not need big stars from here to impress the audiences out there.
A heartbreaking horror movie about Korean zombies has generated so much interest and money out here. Filipino producers should really consider making a manananggal love story with so much kilig and pain perhaps with a beautiful montage of the visceral monster carrying the man she loves while singing I Believe I Can Fly or maybe Two Less Lonely People in the World for that utmost Pinoy commercial stuff.
Now that is really so much possibilities of life from a movie about the living dead.