Train To Busan (2016)

Get on board to stay alive

Writers: Joo-Suk Park, Sang-ho Yeon
Director: Sang-ho Yeon

South Korean horror (‘K-Horror’) has a reputation for being both violent and extremely weird – think Save The Green Planet (2003) as an example. Train To Busan (aka Busanhaeng) breaks out of that pigeon hole completely: it’s a mainstream zombie movie that could have come from a major Hollywood studio. Except that Hollywood would muck it up.

The main character is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a fund manager in Seoul whose estranged wife lives in Busan. Tomorrow is his young daughter’s birthday and she wants to visit her mother. The Hollywood suits would be nodding happily and ticking boxes already! Except that whereas in most Hollywood films the ‘cute kid’ is irritating and an excuse for over sentimentality, here she’s an interesting character. Soo-An is neither annoyingly precocious nor soppy, she’s a believable kid played brilliantly by young Soo-an Kim.

As Seok-woo and Soo-An travel to the railway station, it’s clear that things are going wrong in the city. They board KTX101 unaware that anything’s wrong. At the last moment before the train leaves an unexpected passenger jumps on… a woman with a bite wound…

We’re then introduced to the other main characters, including a college baseball team (complete with bats!), a heavily pregnant woman and her husband as well as two elderly sisters. All pretty much standard disaster movie ingredients, but as the film progresses they’re given a lot more depth of character than you might expect.

It’s not long before the outbreak hits the train. These are fast zeds and those killed turn in a few seconds, so in the confined space of a train there aren’t a lot of places to run. Some well judged station scenes help to ring the changes and prevent things becoming tedious.

The pacing of Train To Busan is superb. Even when not much is happening there’s a lot going on in terms of foreshadowing and character interaction. Sang-ho Yeon well judged direction and great cinematography from Hyung-deok Lee keep the atmosphere and tension levels high. There are some very impressive large-scale set pieces and also smaller, intense interpersonal scenes.

There’s a lot of violence and death, but most of the actual gore and intestine chomping takes place off screen. As for the zombies themselves, there’s not a lot in the way of make up or effects other than some well popped limbs, but this is a film where horde means horde.

As with all good zombie movies there’s a social commentary subtext. Here the main issue is the choice between looking out for number one or helping others. There are also extensions of this theme that touch on xenophobic racism and on the idea of rampant capitalism destroying the world.

If you’re looking for a ground breaking take on the zombie genre then you won’t find it here. Train to Busan is a superb mainstream zombie movie which combines large scale action with intense emotion. Eat your heart out, Hollywood.