Running Time: 118 mins.
Release Date: July 20th, 2016
Director: Yeon Sang-Ho
Writer: Yeon Sang-Ho, Park Joo-Suk (Screenplay),
Starring: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-Mi, Ma Dong-Seok, Kim Soo-Ahn, Kim Eui-Sung, Choi Woo-Sik, Ahn So-Hee, Shim Eun-Kyung,
Train to Busan was something of a global success for the Korean film industry in 2016 when it played to rave reviews at sold-out screenings in a variety of festivals. Familiarity with director Yeon Sang-Ho’s previous works which are animated dramas The King of Pigs and The Fake (both released in the UK under Terracotta) won’t prepare you for this film which is a non-stop thriller light on horror but never sidelines character development.
The action follows Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo), a handsome fund manager who lives with his daughter Soo-An (Kim Soo-Ahn) and mother in a fancy apartment in Seoul. The demands of his job meant his wife disembarked from the marriage and it is now affecting his relationship with his daughter who he doesn’t spend time with. Indeed, this is shown in how he misses a school recital and tasks a subordinate to get the cute girl a Nintendo Wii for her birthday little realising that he had bought one a few months earlier. Soo-An, feeling neglected, insists on staying with her mother in Busan for her birthday. A heartbreaking, “I won’t waste your time. I can go alone by myself.” uttered by Soo-An gets across the distance between the two.
Seok-Woo feels the gap and the guilt but he has no other choice but to take her on a train to Busan.
They catch the early-morning KTX train for Busan at Seoul Station. It is probably the first train out since Seok-Woo plans to be back in work by the afternoon but what he doesn’t realise is that a veritable zombie apocalypse is already underway and his plans will soon be derailed by zed-heads who get on board and chow down on the passengers. Seok-Woo will have to re-route his priorities to look after his daughter and prove he can still be a decent father…
He will get his chance and it will be hair-raising stuff as he has to shepherd his daughter to safety in Busan.
The easiest way to describe this is by analogy and that is 28 Days Later on a train. The characters are fleeing infected, or fast zombies, who spread their virus quickly. The how and why of the virus and the containment breach are given little attention in this film other than a leak in a biotech district which quickly leads to chaos. Both the character set-up and outbreak are handled clearly and concisely with the two strands meshing together on the car ride to the station and the train boarding sequence. Haunting moments such as Soo-An noticing ash falling from the sky as emergency vehicles rush by and a glimpse of a building on fire as seen in a reflection in Seok-Woo’s car window provide ominous signs before news reports provide meatier exposition for the characters to get confused by and to tip the audience off to the scale of events.
The film continues to be lean and efficient when the zombie attacks begin with little time wasted as a stowaway on the train infects an attendant and then the two chomp on some passengers and so forth. There is enough attention given to make-up to make the zombies pass the grade visually so this doesn’t come off as cheap B-movie material. The infected are given the cloudy eyes and salient veins, they foam and drool like they have rabies and they have one-track minds that lead them to simply attack on sight. It is enough for zombies but there are some different rules governing their abilities such as how they see in the dark which provides gripping thriller mechanics for later on in the film. Whatever the case, the fact that they are on the train with the characters and go from carriage to carriage makes them a threat.
The train-bound sequences provide a lot of suspense due to the characters getting separated and having to fight or sneak their way through tight spaces while the moments when the train stops and characters disembark provide high levels of panic and breathless escapes as stampedes of infected assail people. Much like World War Z (2013), the chaos and the disorientation of being engulfed by people and tearing away from a stampede is captured well with lots of dolly shots following escapees dashing up and down stairs and there is an intense sequences where a rig is attached to characters dodging around a train station. The use of multiple POV shots as characters wrestle with dead-heads allow audiences to see the gnashing teeth and eyes riven by rage up close in the many, many infected attacks but the most intimidating thing is the sense of danger from large crowds as windows and doors cave in under pressure and people get trampled on. To get the sizeable crowds going, CG is used but it meshes well with the live-action actors who are fleeing in different directions to hide, all the better to build up tension as people get separated and trapped.
The thread that holds the film together is the relationship between Seok-Woo and Soo-An. The battle between his survival instincts and the need to be a better man for his daughter provides a lot of the development as his daughter is constantly watching him. The character arcs gradually alter over the course of the narrative as he meets and works with or abandons people from station to station. His change isn’t immediate and seeing him wrestle with selfishness provides interesting dramatic intersections as audiences are never quite sure whether he will be heroic and save another character or just himself and Soo-An.
The film has a set of characters representing different segments of Korean society decide to join forces or save themselves. The people range from a homeless man to highschoolers to a cowardly oligarch whose selfish actions condemn others to death. Seok-Woo fits in with the greedy and scared at first but Soo-An’s kind behaviour to strangers and the intervention of other passengers, most notably a pregnant couple, Sung-Gyeong (Jung Yu-Mi, star of Our Sunhi) and her gentle giant of a husband Sang-Hwa (Ma Dong-Seok), get him to reform for his daughter. It is a believable development that doesn’t provide easy redemption and audience may well be swept along with Sang-Hwa’s cool-headed character, a cynical but dedicated man whose immense strength has the force of a freight train and makes him a runaway sensation when it comes to battering zombies and whose wry sense of humour leavens dead serious or terribly sad moments. Indeed, he almost steals the film.
It falls into sentimentality in the end but it is a fitting culmination to everyone’s stories. The fact that the film is so brave and daring to have horrible people in the lead roles and humanise them and it is all so enjoyably and energetically violent in the way its fights are staged and so ruthless and uncompromising in the way it dispenses with most of the cast makes it so thrilling to watch. This isn’t a profound or scary zombie movie but it is fun and has tension so it’s definitely worth a go. A sequel is currently in the works but before that is an animated prequel called Seoul Station.