Synopsis – While a zombie-virus breaks out in South Korea, a couple of passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.
My Take – South Korea is back on the map once again with another overly impressive feature! This film from debutant director Sang-ho Yeon, which has been earning an increasing amount of positive word of mouth and box office success since its debut in the Midnight Screenings section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, solidly places South Korea on the zombie world map definitively. With such a high presence in both TV and film, zombies are becoming over used. Zombie films have been hitting our screens since the dawn of time. Well, it certainly feels like they have anyway. Popularized by George A Romero‘s terrific Dead trilogy, zombie films have since been rearing their heads like hordes of the undead themselves. Whilst they can be a lot of fun, more often than not, they can also be cliché ridden and trashy. Nothing turns me off more than when zombie films gradually derail from character development and fall into the trap of gore fests and amusement killing just for the sake of it. Our fascination with them seems to quickly be coming to a close, so it takes something special to stand out. Luckily this film does exactly that. This film, however, restores my faith in the sub-genre as director Yeon Sang-ho has created one of the most entertaining and unpretentious zombie movies I have seen in a while. First time live action director, Sang-ho Yeon, has managed to craft a unique take on the undead by placing them on a train and adding a few things to their mythology. He does not treat his characters as mere cannon fodder. Each character arc is well-contemplated, the established relationships may not be equally potent with each other, but for a film to wrestle with so many of them while successfully maintaining the edge-of-the-seat tension, the result is quite brilliant.
The story follows investment manager Seok Woo (Yoo Gong), a divorced, workaholic fund manager/corporate bloodsucker who consistently neglects his daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an). On her birthday, Soo-an demands to visit her mother and and they both board the fast train KTX with the intention of returning after lunch. The train also includes a group of archetypal commuters: a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) who’s heavily relying on her brawny husband (Ma Dong-Seok), a pair of elderly sisters (Ye Soo-jung and Park Myung- sin), a pair of high-school sweethearts (Choi Woo-sik and Ahn So-hee) and a stern-looking businessman (Kim Eui-sung). The last person to hop in, however, is a girl with a strange bite on her thigh. But the train crew seems to be more alarmed at the presence of a homeless man (Choi Gwi-hwa) hiding inside the washroom. During the journey, the infected woman attacks a train staff and soon all the passengers in the wagon are attacked and begin to turn. Soon Seok Woo realizes that there is a zombie outbreak in South Korea and together with the remaining passengers they isolate the safe front wagons from the infected ones. Along their journey, the non-infected passengers have to fight the zombies and let go of their inner inhibitions. The film keeps things simple: train, zombies, stations, and a bunch of people that will try to survive (some of them will do anything to do so). But the situation is original and there is deep character development, which is not usual in horror movies, showing the different behavior of the human being in a stressful situation depending on his or her character (or lack of). One of the strongest elements in the film is the screenplay, it works so damn good, giving each character enough time to develop and at the same time keeping us on the edge of our seats with every scene. The film starts off as a good little zombie thriller. There wasn’t really much of an explanation on how the infection started, but it’s all good. There’s a sense of realism to the whole situation as we’re made to watch the panic unfold on the train in an effective way. There’s also a nice comic touch to the whole thing with some witty dialogue so it never takes itself too seriously. It also somehow never gets boring even though the film is essentially two hours set on a train, which is no easy task. There’s always tension and a sense of peril. You get the feeling that anything could happen to these characters at any given moment. Once the film reaches the mid-way point though it stops being good and starts becoming great. Things get going fairly quickly so the characters develop through the action, making the film all the more gripping as it goes on. It’s an unpredictable ride with lots of thrilling set- pieces to keep you on edge. The final half hour is essentially non-stop action and it becomes exhausting to watch without ever feeling too ridiculous. What really impressed me though was the emotional charge in the second half. There is an incredibly emotional scene involving this character that really hits hard. The build up to the scene works well and because we are so attached to him, anytime he is at risk the stakes are raised. The scene is effective and almost brought tears to my eyes. Typical of the zombie genre, the film does contain a social critique. Similar to Snowpiercer, the film uses its setting to comment on the class system and the social order we fall into.
The businessman is ultimately the boss as he is superior in pedigree and it is up to everyone else to follow him or be cast aside. Additionally his character perfectly aligns with the dog eat dog world we live in today as he uses others for his own advantage. As he throws people to the wayside, literally to be devoured by those around them, it is clear the point that is being made. Other than being known for their take on family drama, life problems, or just full blown tearjerkers, Korean films are also home to some of the most terrifying, spine-chilling, and effective jumps care usage in horror films of all time. This film captures both aspects successfully. Just like in World War Z, they act like swarms of insects as they barrel through doorways and windows creating a sense of urgency slower zombies often fail to establish. They also look great. There are a few moments when they all swarm together, where it is clear CGI was used, but for the most part they used practical effects. The zombies move with disjointed, quick movements that make them very terrifying. It is almost painful to watch them contort their bodies as they converge on their victims. The real unique characteristic though is that they cannot see well in the dark. This trait provides the basis for a number of intense set pieces as characters use sounds to mislead the zombies and navigate the claustrophobic setting from train car to train car. The scoring in this film is just right, and the visuals provided with each shot is definitely jaw-dropping. There is not really a dull moment throughout the course of this film, and it does kick up into a high gear early on, and the film keeps that pace all the way to the end. And that is really an accomplishment for director Sang-ho Yeon. The film does lack in several aspects, such as inexplicable plot points, questionable decisions by the characters, and some lagging in storytelling by the latter half of the movie. Good thing is, the negative aspects are only apparent on subsequent watches, and the film still provides good entertainment sprinkled with logical backstories and likable/unpleasant characters for you to root to survive or die. Among the performers, Gong Woo played the flawed lead character very well. He was able to convincingly portray the development of this uncaring apathetic guy into a hero we could all root for to get through this crisis alive. He was as good in the weepy dramatic scenes as he was in the swashbuckling action scenes. Having seen in him the excellent action thriller The Suspect (2013), its good to see him in an emotional role. Kim Su-an despite being just 10 years old is the dramatic core of this film as the daughter desperately reaching out to her jaded father. As a child actress, she held her own with her heartfelt portrayal. Ma Dong-seok is charismatic as Sang-hwa, a devoted husband and selfless fighter. We see him first as some sort of comic relief only, which made the audience warm up to him. Later, we would discover how much more his character was able to do and give for others, and loved him more. His pregnant wife played by actress Jung Yu-mi, conveys strength in her delicate condition. Kim Eui-sung, who was totally hateful in his role as the selfish Yong-suk. In total contrast to Sang-hwa, Yong- suk was a man only thought of himself alone, not caring that he actually put a lot of other characters directly into harm’s way. Ahn So-hee (as Jin-hee) and Choi Woo-shik (as Young-guk) were in there to inject some teenage romantic angst into the film. They were relatively lightweight performers who were probably included just because they looked cool. That scene when Young-guk encounters his baseball teammates-turned-zombies was very well-conceived by the writers. People may dismiss as “just” being a zombie film, but it is the drama of human relationships and interactions that rises above the horrific and thrilling carnage. On the whole, ‘Busanhaeng’ or ‘Train to Busan’ is an exhilarating roller-coaster ride with an engaging screenplay, powerful performances & creative zombie horror.
Directed – Sang-ho Yeon
Rated – R
Run Time – 118 minutes