Friday, December 2, 2016

A la la landmark


Minutes into La La Land, we were picking our jaws off the floor.

There hasn’t been a purer distillation all year of why we go to the movies, and why cinema isn’t ready to be replaced by home viewing, than the opening sequence of Damien Chazelle’s new film. It opens with a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. As the camera pans along the gridlock, we hear the sounds of radio stations, hip hop and salsa and R&B. This chaotic soundscape is interrupted by a sound of a young woman singing. Another motorist picks up the tune, then another. People get out of their cars and dance. In a matter of minutes, the freeway is hosting a musical number for the ages.

Even edited, this would have been a spectacular sequence, but Chazelle elects to shoot it in a breathless single take. It must have taken weeks of planning and rehearsal to nail all the individual and group movements—some close to acrobatic—and weave them into a flowing, ecstatic whole. Linus Sandgren’s spectacularly mobile camera tilts, pans, dips, races: this must have been what German film-maker F.W. Murnau was dreaming of in the 1920s when he spoke of an “unchained camera”. The song is an up-tempo, Latin-infused number called "Another Day of Sun", and people were pa-pa-pumming it while leaving the theatre.

This sequence might remind some of West Side Story because of the way it marries location shooting and dance, but Chazelle found inspiration in another musical from the same era. In an interview with Variety, La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz spoke about how they “wanted to have a big production number that really pulled you into the world”. He mentions the opening sequence of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, which creates a jazzy musical number out of two trucks and a barge, before seguing into a vibrant bit of group choreography.

Demy’s influence on La La Land is visible throughout. He was the swooniest of the French New Wave directors, his films full of bright colours and witty nods to Hollywood musicals. La La Land borrows his palette—especially those pastel shades—and his signature sound, forged in collaboration with the great Michel Legrand. In the same Variety interview, Hurwitz mentions the French composer’s ability to combine a jazz rhythm section with a full-blown orchestra and end up with something danceable. Legrand probably wouldn’t mind being cited as the inspiration for tunes as perfectly constructed as City of Stars or A Lovely Night.



Chazelle first came to wider notice when Whiplash, a film about a young jazz drummer and his martinet of a teacher that he wrote and directed, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. It went on to become an unprecedented hit, garnering five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and winning three (Editing, Sound Design and Supporting Actor). Few are aware that this wasn’t Chazelle’s first film, or his first stab at reviving the musical genre. His directorial debut came in 2009 with Guy And Madeline on a Park Bench, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Like Miles Teller’s drummer in Whiplash and Ryan Gosling’s traditionalist pianist in La La Land, it had a jazz musician protagonist: a trumpet player named Guy.

Guy And Madeline began as Chazelle’s thesis film at Harvard. And it feels like a first film, shot on grainy 16 mm stock and showing the strong influence of another debut film, John Cassavetes’ landmark 1959 independent film Shadows. Yet, parts of it also seem like a dry run for both his subsequent films. The jumpy editing and hand-held camerawork would be used to greater dramatic effect in Whiplash. But it’s also a bona fide musical, with tap dancing and characters breaking into song. Hurwitz’s score, like his one for La La Land, is equal parts jazz and classic Hollywood symphony. There’s even a musical number done in one long, unbroken shot.




La La Land is set in present-day Los Angeles, but you get the sense that the central characters would have preferred to belong to an earlier era. The Gosling character, Sebastian, loves Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and wants to open a club where people can hear “pure” jazz. The actor Mia, played by Emma Stone, seems to hark back to a time when people who came to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune were discovered performing one-person plays rather than, say, off a YouTube short. The film’s enthusiasm for jazz “as it used to be” is matched by its nostalgia for studio-era Hollywood (the flip side of this could be David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, which has a similar dreamlike air but is pessimistic about Hollywood’s intentions). The coffee shop Mia works at is across the road from the window Bogart and Bergman looked out of in Casablanca. Sebastian can’t believe she hasn’t seen Rebel Without A Cause; they go for a screening, then head to the Griffith Observatory, the setting for one of Rebel’s memorable scenes.

Inevitably, there is tribute paid to the great Hollywood musicals. "A Lovely Night", an old-timey bantering duet shot in one take, has Gosling and Stone doing their best Astaire-Rogers. At one point, Gosling even hangs from a lamp post like Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain. And as the film progresses and Sebastian and Mia begin to measure the size of their dreams against their ambitions, there are also echoes of sombre musicals like A Star Is Born and Meet Me In St Louis.

Not that you have to catch any of these references to enjoy La La Land. There’s nothing cerebral about the boisterous poolside dance that ends "Someone in the Crowd", or the dazzling camera move during the same song in which you’re looking up at the sky one moment, down at the ground the next. Neither is it difficult for a lay viewer to recognize the ache underlying the charm of Gosling and Stone. When they say they don’t make movies like this anymore, they aren’t talking about musicals—they mean movies that give unironic pleasure, that draw spontaneous whoops from jaded viewers, and leave one light-footed and tingling when they’re done.



This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dead Zindagi: Review


In Dear Zindagi, Shah Rukh Khan plays Jehangir Khan (“Call me Jug”), a Goan psychiatrist who helps the mildly disaffected Kaira (Alia Bhatt) with her problems. His analysis is a bit fortune cookie-ish (“Don’t let the past blackmail your present to ruin a beautiful future”), but does that really matter? If there’s one thing we ought to be able to agree upon, it’s that none of us would mind Khan as our analyst. Who wouldn’t want her story listened to with that famous Shah Rukh concentration, her worries alleviated by that self-deprecating chuckle?

One of the heartening things about Gauri Shinde’s film—her second after the well-received English Vinglish in 2012—is its insistence that seeing a shrink isn’t something out of the ordinary. Kaira isn’t seeking help because she’s depressed or is hearing voices—she’s just having trouble sleeping. Over Skype, she tells her worried house help to think of Jug as a dimaag ka doctor, one you can tell your problems to. In a more heated moment, she asks her family why it’s acceptable to say that you’re visiting a doctor but not a mental health specialist. It’s a small blow, but the thousands of people seeking psychiatric help across India will probably be grateful for a film that articulates these very basic truths.

Dear Zindagi takes its time depositing its protagonist on the couch. In the film’s opening stretch, which unfolds in Mumbai, we find out that Kaira’s cheating on her boyfriend, Sid (Angad Bedi), with a colleague, Raghu (Kunal Kapoor), who loves her but whom she keeps at arm’s length. Freeing herself of both relationships, she heads to Goa and gets tangled up in equally fraught tug-of-war with her overly concerned parents. It’s not often you see a sexually liberated, commitment-phobic, parent-averse female character in a Hindi film. It’s almost as if the film’s inviting judgement; when Jug asks Kaira about her boyfriends, she immediately snaps, accusing him of mentally slut-shaming her (Khan’s pained reaction is one of his best moments in the film).

Despite a few nicely worked-out traumas, there isn’t much that disturbs Dear Zindagi’s placid surface. I can understand the urge to present Kaira—a cinematographer at the start of her career—as more than competent, but having her advise a director on how to reshoot his final scene, and his actually welcoming the suggestion is so far-fetched it’s almost science fiction. There’s a token gay character, whose only significant scene seems to exist to show how chill Kaira is. Goa looks as pretty and boring as a picture postcard. Laxman Utekar’s cinematography is glossy and impersonal, Amit Trivedi’s music inoffensive and over-used.

At times, I found myself wishing the film would flail about more. A relevant point of comparison might be Kapoor & Sons—another Dharma production about family secrets, one which didn’t allow its picturesque setting or devastatingly pretty cast get in the way of ugly confrontation. Dear Zindagi has one such explosion, but it’s awkwardly written and exists more as an excuse for Alia to be able to do a big shout-y scene. Shinde tries a couple of new-Bollywood tricks—interrupting songs with short scenes, for instance—but there’s little to quicken the pulse, let alone set it racing. And some of the choices are just plain silly, like the character who says “Lebanese” when he means “lesbian”, or the scene in which Kaira, angry with Raghu, breaks bottles of ragu.

Amid all this, Bhatt thrives. As always, it’s the little choices she makes within scenes—fiddling with the furniture, twitching her lip—that render her such a compelling actor. Shah Rukh Khan bears down with starry charm on the role of Jug, but his mountaineer anecdote just can’t compare with his co-star talking about herself in disguised third person earlier in the scene. Bhatt has a rare ability to make the emotional decisions of her characters look as if they spontaneously occurred to her. In other words, she gives the impression she’s winging it, which makes even the most ordinary scenes she’s in terribly exciting.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The first picture show

This piece was part of Mint Lounge's cover on 120 years of watching movies together in India.


Marius Sestier (right) with Australian photographer and filmmaker Henry Walter Barnett. Courtesy: Marie-Dominique Petitbois (permission needed for reprint)
Cinema as we know it was born on 28 December 1895, in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris. Ten films by the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, were screened in a room called the Salon Indien, thereby linking, however tangentially, India and the moment of cinema’s birth. Some six months later, the Lumière Cinématographe—a film camera which also served as a projector and printer—was brought to India. On 7 July 1896, a group of people sat together and watched a movie for the first time ever in this country. Perhaps a few in the audience had seen magic lanterns, devices that allowed a single person to view moving images. But seeing pictures projected on a screen—and sharing that experience with others—was almost certainly new to all.
The man responsible for bringing the Lumière films to Bombay was a French chemist-turned-camera-operator named Marius Sestier. He left Marseille with his wife, Marie-Louise Sestier, on 11 June 1896 and reached Bombay on 30 June (the almost wilful misspelling of his name in India begins with the Shipping Intelligence section of the Bombay Gazette, which identifies him as “Cestier”). The Advocate Of India newspaper carried a small story on 2 July announcing the arrival of the Cinématographe—enterprising work by Sestier, considering he knew no English and had apparently taken only a day to acclimatize and find a press contact. The piece compared the Lumière camera favourably to the Kinetoscope, which suggests that Thomas Edison’s magic lantern was well-known enough to require no explanation.
An advertisement for the show appeared in the Bombay Gazette and The Times Of India on the morning of the screening. “The marvel of the century!” the headline read, and beneath it, “The wonder of the world!!” The playbill promised “Living photographic pictures in life-sized reproductions”—perhaps the clearest description that could be offered to readers with little or no conception of cinema.
On 7 July, a small crowd gathered in the grand hall of the swanky Watson’s Hotel in the Kala Ghoda neighbourhood of south Bombay. Exactly how many people attended, and how many of these were Indians, doesn’t seem to have been recorded. Contrary to popular belief, there’s evidence to suggest that Watson’s was not a Europeans-only establishment, so it’s quite possible that wealthy Indians attended the screenings. What we do know for sure is this: There were four shows in the evening, at 6, 7, 9 and 10; admission was a flat Re 1; the films screened were Entry Of Cinematographe, Arrival Of A Train, The Sea Bath, A Demolition, Leaving The Factory and Ladies And Soldiers On Wheels. We can also surmise, from the descriptions of screenings Sestier organized in Australia, that the lights came on after every film, most of which were a minute long. The audience would then wait for the new film to be wound through, after which the room would be plunged into darkness again.

Courtesy: Sylvia Murphy (permission required to reprint)

It’s difficult to imagine how close to magic those first flickerings must have seemed to those who witnessed them. Did Arrival Of A Train make the spectators at Watson’s jump out of their seats, as it did those who first saw it in Paris? (Historians Mihir Bose and B.D. Garga say it did.) A report on the screening, published in the Bombay Gazette on 9 July, is vague about audience make-up and reaction. It misidentifies the Lumières as the exhibitors, and bemoans the smallness of the room as the reason for the on-screen figures not being “life-size”, contrary to what the advertisements promised. On the whole, though, the reporter was impressed. “No one who takes an interest in the march of science should allow to pass by the opportunity that now presents itself to see the cinematographe,” the piece concluded.
In a country where most movie-watchers fancy themselves to be decent enough critics, it’s amusing to note that the first report on a screening also doubles up as the first film review. The Bombay Gazette reporter praises Arrival Of A Train, A Demolition and The Sea Bath, but singles out Leaving The Factory as the most realistic. That this elevation appears to have been due to the emotional qualities of the scene (“brings a whole crowd of moving humanity on the canvas”) is a fitting start to the long Indian tradition of approaching cinema heart first and head later.
Screenings followed on 9 July and, with a new set of six films, on 10 and 11 July. Sestier also leased the Novelty theatre near Grant Road, a move welcomed by the Bombay Gazette, which estimated that the “science effect will be greatly enhanced” in the larger venue. As it happened, science didn’t take effect that day; there was a power failure and the screening on 14 July was cancelled, disappointing the “fairly large audience” that had turned up in the rain. The Novelty screening was rescheduled for 21 July: two shows, of 12 films each, at 6.30pm and 9.30pm. They went off without a hitch, and further shows were scheduled for 23 and 24 July.
From 27 July to 15 August, there were screenings every evening (except on Thursdays, for some reason) at Novelty. The shows appear to have been well-attended, though there’s no information on how many of the theatre’s 1,400 seats were filled. We know that variable pricing was introduced: the orchestra stall and dress circle, Rs 2; second seats Re 1; back seats, 50 paise. Sally Jackson, curator of film at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, says the screenings were accompanied by spoken commentary. “They were narrated, presumably in English,” she says over the phone from Canberra. “This was common for all the Lumière shows.” The last few shows even had musical accompaniment, played on piano by one F. Seymour Dove (“…appropriate to the views exhibited,” the Bombay Gazette noted approvingly).
As with the shows at Watson’s, it’s difficult to say how many of the viewers at Novelty were Indian. However, articles describing the Cinématographe in Gujarati (in Kaiser-i-Hind) and Marathi are an indication that non-European, non-English-speaking audiences were encouraged to attend. One notable audience member at the Lumière screenings was a photographer named Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar, better known as Save Dada. He was so inspired that he ordered a camera from England and shot The Wrestlers (1899), one of the very first films by an Indian, and inaugurated the newsreel tradition in the country with The Arrival Of Sir MM Bhownaggree and Atash Behram (both 1901).
Watson's Hotel today; possibly the same room in which the screenings took place

On 26 August, the Sestiers (recorded as “Sistier” by the unrepentant Shipping Intelligence) left for Colombo and, from there, for Sydney. Film historian Tony Martin-Jones’ website, which provides a thorough chronology of Sestier’s activities, notes that the cameraman organized Cinématographe shows for his fellow passengers on the FMS Polynésien. Sestier would go on to screen the Lumière films in Australia, and make Patineur Grotesque, thought to be the country’s oldest surviving film.
Back in India, the genie, having escaped the bottle, set about fulfilling an ever-increasing number of wishes. Calcutta and Madras had their first moving-picture shows in 1897. That year, Clifton & Co. had daily screenings at their Meadows Street photography studio in Bombay (by happy coincidence, Sylvia Murphy, a descendant of its founder, provided information for this story). A lot of early film-watching in India was done in tents, but the move towards permanent structures was inevitable. In 1907, J.F. Madan built the Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta, probably the first dedicated movie theatre in the country. People could now get together for the express purpose of watching cinema. That an overwhelming number of us still get together, over a hundred years later, to gaze at life-sized reproductions on a screen, is more than a little magical.
Rafique Baghdadi, Sally Jackson, Tony Martin-Jones, Sylvia Murphy and Marie-Dominique Petitbois were extremely generous with information and counsel.

Rock On 2: Review

When we last met Aditya, Joe, Kedar and Rob, members of the rock band Magik, they were seemingly headed for fame and fortune, having overcome assorted monetary, professional and mid-life crises. Since then, Rob, on his deathbed at the end of Rock On!!, has passed, though Luke Kenny makes an appearance in a flashback, his tresses greying but still worthy of some sort of hair-shimmer award. Joe (Arjun Rampal) has given up music and become a reality show judge and the owner of a swanky club. Aditya (Farhan Akhtar), haunted by the suicide of a fan, has decamped to Meghalaya. And Kedar (Purab Kohli) still goes by KD, short for ‘Killer Drummer’, which might be all you need to know about his emotional growth.

Had Rock On 2 rehashed Abhishek Kapoor’s 2008 film—simply given us another variation on good-looking, well-to-do people bemoaning life passing them by—it would have been trying. But director Shujaat Saudagar and writers Abhishek Kapoor and Pubali Chaudhuri have a new hook: altruism. The film opens in the mountains of Meghalaya, where Aditya has helped the local farmers form a cooperative and start a school. It’s good to see Hindi films try out new settings, and the valleys and lakes look idyllic, but the idea that it takes a big-city musician running from his demons to organise workers (that too, in the northeast) comes across as fairly patronising.

Aditya’s social work is put on hold when singer Jiah (Shraddha Kapoor) enters the picture. She’s the daughter of a disapproving classical musician (Kumud Mishra), and—as KD’s voice-over makes blindingly clear—has her own demons, just like Aditya. The film reveals the source of her trauma very slowly, though an educated guess should get you there about an hour in advance. There’s some potential in the film’s conception of Jiah—a shy woman who makes field recordings and writes tunes she doesn’t want people to hear—but there’s little that unfamiliar about the disapproving-father-dutiful-daughter route her story takes.

Like the earlier film, the best thing one can say about Rock On 2 is that it’s a professional job. The storytelling is straightforward, and just in case anyone’s having the slightest difficulty understanding what’s going on, there’s KD’s voice-over. The writing is stolid, full of unmusical truths like “Move on kehna aasaan hai, karna mushkil hai”. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy contribute bright, catchy pop-rock. Everything is tied with a neat bow in the end—nothing like a good gig to set right deep-seated emotional issues and, it would seem, a corner of Meghalaya.

With Akhtar and Rampal doing strong-men-in-agony routines, it’s left to Kohli to inject some fun, which he gamely does, even though it makes him look silly at times. Shashank Arora is intriguing as an ambitious shudhh Hindi-speaking semi-classical musician who joins Magik, but it’s an underwritten part. Kapoor does her own singing—fairly well, it must be said—as does the hoarse-voiced Akhtar. What is perhaps most surprising is that a film about musicians has nothing insightful to tell us about how music is made. In the fantasy world of the film, abandoned takes and flubbed notes don’t exist. It sounds right but rings false.

This review appeared in Mint.

Doctor Strange: Review

Remember the sequence in Inception in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page cause Paris to fold over on itself? Imagine a film with set-piece upon set-piece like this, but with precious little to bind them together, and you get Doctor Strange, adapted from a lesser-known Marvel series dating back to 1963 and featuring a group of supremely talented actors saying incredibly silly things.

Even as the faithful waited for the mid-credits sequence and the post-credits sequence, I left the hall with the worrying realisation that I’d just sat through a movie that I couldn’t, for the life of me, explain in any detail. If anyone asked, I’d be able to tell them that Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a gifted, self-centred surgeon, suffers severe damage to his hands after a car accident, travels to Kathmandu to seek out a shadowy mystic known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and gets involved in an intergalactic (or is it inter-dimensional?) war with her former student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). But what Kaecilius’ game-plan in (something to do with eternal life), why characters keep saying “dark dimension” and “astral plane” like the words actually mean something, what the deal with the stained-glass monster at the end is, I have no clue.

Doctor Strange is Batman Begins with magic brass knuckles and mysticism: an origin story about a rich, arrogant man who learns the ancient arts from a shamanistic figure and finds a suitable cape. The philosophical mumbo-jumbo is initially undercut by Strange, who just wants to get his hands fixed and leave. This, of course, is undone by a clunky but necessary bit of exposition (”The Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats.”).

The film has beautifully inventive set-pieces: the sequences in which cityscapes rapidly sway, spin, fold and rearrange themselves are true feats of visual imagination. Yet, very little of anything anyone says in the film makes any sense, and I found myself waiting impatiently for the room to become an Escher drawing or Strange to freeze time with a wave of his hand. An accomplished cast— Swinton, Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor (trying out a vaguely Asian accent)—barely registers. Cumberbatch plays yet another sardonic man of science and gives no indication of tiring of the type.

This review appeared in Mint.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: Review

How do you say “white elephant art” in Urdu? I’m sure the makers of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil have affection for the language and its place in Indian cinema, but its presence here felt more like a pose than natural speech. A character actually says, “Wow, Urdu is so exotic,” and though it’s meant as a joke, this feels like the film’s attitude as well. Every time Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) says waalid or shauhar, one pictures the writers (story and screenplay by Karan Johar; dialogue by Johar and Niranjan Iyengar) patting themselves on the back for being so refined. The fact is that Urdu dialogue today is mostly limited to two kinds of Hindi films: ones set in the distant past and ones set in Pakistan. Whether the scenes set in “Lucknow, India” (as the onscreen text assures us) were in “Lahore, Pakistan” in an earlier draft, we may never know.

If Urdu is fetishized in Karan Johar’s film, Bollywood is as well. Alizeh and Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) bond over Hindi films after their hook-up in London ends with her making fun of his kissing. He sings "Ruk Ja O Dil Deewane". She dreams of a being in a teary airport scene one day. They head off to the mountains; he sings “ae hey”, she wears a chiffon sari in the snow. He plays "Pyar Ka Tohfa Tera" first thing in the morning—an astonishing act of self-flagellation. You can see why Johar spends so much time referencing popular movies and songs: by demolishing any notion of hierarchies of taste, he makes it easier for audiences to relate to characters who are “jet plane wealthy”.

Holidaying in Paris with Ayan, Alizeh bumps into her former lover, a DJ named Ali (Fawad Khan). She’d warned Ayan earlier that Ali was her tabahi (destruction) and she proves this by dropping her friend cold and walking off with her flame. A couple of days later, she informs Ayan that she’s marrying Ali. She asks him to attend the wedding, a request bordering on cruel, given that Ayan has made it clear that he still loves her. But Ayan is such a self-deluding, self-defeating character that he agrees immediately and heads to Lucknow to try and win her back at her own wedding. You can imagine how that works out.

After the intermission, the film starts to resemble Johar’s 2006 film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, with Alizeh and Ali married and Ayan starting a relationship with a poet named Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). The difference is that the Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherji characters in Kabhi Alvida wanted to spend their life together, whereas Alizeh is adamant that Ayan is only a friend. Whether you find the latter half of the film frustrating or moving might depend on your tolerance for generalizations such as “The best kind of love is one-sided” and your willingness to see Ranbir Kapoor play yet another sad-sack romantic with the emotional intelligence of a 15-year-old.

Instead of confronting its central question—what do you do if the person you love doesn’t love you back?—the film sidesteps it with a shameless deus ex machina. There’s a certain cynicism involved in introducing a twist like this: the assumption has to be that the audience won’t see through the very obvious manipulation, or won’t care. Similarly blatant is the cameo by Shah Rukh Khan, a two-minute apologia for ex-lovers who won’t give up.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has a run-time of 158 minutes, but there’s surprisingly little filler, and a better ratio of good to bad jokes than one might expect from a Johar film. Lisa Haydon has an entertaining cameo early in the film as Ayan’s girlfriend, and there were audible sighs when Fawad Khan turned up onscreen. Rai, though, struggles to give her character definition; it’s ironic to hear Saba say that beauty fades while personality persists beyond the grave, given that the actor has always had too much of the former and very little of the latter. Her lovey-dovey scenes with Kapoor are a train wreck, though for sheer awkwardness it’s difficult to beat Johar determinedly celebrating his own career through the course of the film. Within the first 10 minutes, three of his films are referenced. The theme from Kal Ho Na Ho plays at one point, "It’s the Time to Disco" at another. Alizeh says, “I am not a terrorist.” She and Ayan do the nose-tweaking thing from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. This is beyond just self-referential—it’s self-reverential. Maybe that’s the answer to the film’s dilemma: when the object of your affection doesn’t reciprocate, you simply learn to love yourself.

This review appeared in Mint.

Train to Busan: Review

It might be a strange thing to say about a zombie movie, but there’s a lean beauty to Train to Busan. It’s difficult to imagine this film done more efficiently, or more effectively. Take the opening three minutes. It’s a common monster movie trope—the anomaly in nature that hints at impending disaster—but what distinguishes this sequence is its economy. A truck transporting livestock is halted and sprayed by men in protective suits; they say there’s been a leak at a nearby plant. On the highway, distracted by his phone, he hits a deer, killing it. As he drives away, the animal suddenly seizes and stands up. The camera zooms in on its eyes, which are an unearthly white.

In the 10 minutes it takes to get from deer-zombie to the titular train, we’re introduced to Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an). He’s a fund manager, divorced, a conscientious but distracted father. They’re headed to Busan to drop Su-an off at her mother’s. Their fellow passengers include a hilariously spiky married couple, Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), members of a baseball team, a loathsome CEO, two old sisters and a disturbed-looking man who mutters “They’re all dead” to himself over and over again. There’s also a young woman who climbs aboard, limping, with a bite wound on her leg.

The moment the woman’s eyes turn white and she bites the attendant, the film shifts gears. Within minutes, our protagonists are being pursued across the train by the deadly (if not very intelligent) undead. Seok-woo and Sang-hwa become de facto leaders; when running is no longer an option, they start taking the fight to the zombies, whose number now includes most of the train’s passengers. With each successive encounter, we learn a little more about what these walking dead can do (shuffle quickly, spread the virus by biting) and can’t (run, open doors).

Director Yeon Sang-ho, who’s worked mostly in animation before this, displays a by-now recognizably Korean talent for sustained, dynamic filmmaking and controlled mayhem. Unlike Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer—another kinetic action film set aboard a train—there’s little social comment, apart from the one scene that seems to comment on the plight of immigrants. If there’s further subtext, it’s overshadowed by the repeated visual of zombie heads being bashed in with baseball bats. Train to Busan doesn’t make many emotional demands of the viewer, nor does it further the zombie genre in any significant way. But you don’t really need to break new ground if you can tread familiar paths so confidently.

This review appeared in Mint.