Director – Sang-ho Yeon
Cast – Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Ahn So-hee, Eui-sung Kim
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
I had been meaning to give Train to Busan a watch for the longest time after seeing it on the majority of top 10 horror lists for 2016. Those familiar with Asian horror are fully aware that South Korea puts out some top-notch experiences, and Train to Busan is one of them. While South Korea’s critically acclaimed The Wailing debuted only a month prior, Train to Busan upped the ante by giving us an equally great film with a different purpose. For nearly two straight hours the viewer is bombarded with non-stop action that erupts into loads of horror. Nobody is safe and hearts will break in this debut live-action film for Sang-ho Yeon.
The story follows Seok-woo, a workaholic hedge fund manager and divorced father to his young daughter Soo-an. Due to the demands of his job, Seok-woo is forced to miss key moments of Soo-an’s childhood, leaving her to be cared for by his mother. For her birthday, Soo-an’s one wish is to travel to Busan to see her mother. He is reluctant at first, but Saek-woo knows that he shouldn’t keep her from seeing her mother for so long. The next morning they board a train to Busan, and it is then at the 20 minute mark that the horror begins. With the country falling victim to a hoard of zombies growing at an exponential rate, the safest place to be is onboard their train. This at least was the case, until an infected person boarded the train just before departure. With each waking moment the passengers are turned into bloodthirsty maniacs, leaving Saek-woo and Soo-an faced with horrors they never imagined as the living dead, and social breakdown, prove to be the downfall of everyone onboard the train to Busan.
Sang-ho Yeon both writes and directs the film, excelling at both in what is a landmark film debut. Yeon is known for his animated works, which includes a prequel to this film titled Seoul Station. From start to finish, he delivers 118 minutes of engaging material that never relents. His story kicks off quickly, delivering the first sign of trouble before the 20-minute mark and the first kill shortly after that. This surprised me as this is a long film that still had a lot of remaining runtime to go, but this solid story moved brilliantly. There are multiple elements going on at one time, with the first being the relationship between Seok-woo and Soo-an. It is obvious they are not as close as they need to be. Seok-woo has put work and money in front of his relationship with his daughter, and to an extent he does not see anything wrong with that. He would rather provide a comfortable life and future for her at the cost of their relationship. She, on the other hand, cares little for monetary value and would rather live with a parent who will provide for her emotionally – her mother. Their conflict doesn’t end there though, as they also have different approaches to survival. The father’s only concern is getting his daughter to safety. He is not concerned with the lives of others, and tries to instill this same philosophy to her as well. Soo-an is the more compassionate one, and she displays her disappointment in her father’s “selfishness”. To me, neither of them are wrong. Seok-woo is doing what any father would do. He has one mission and will not let others get in his way of getting her to safety. Soo-an is too young and innocent to understand such behavior. While we are on the subject of characters, there are several supporting characters that play prominent roles in the film. There are those you will like and there are several you will hate. Yeon makes sure to use them all to their fullest potential, including using some of them to die in heartbreaking fashion.
Next comes the horror itself. Yeon’s horror is fantastic in that it is simply unrelenting. The zombies grow at such a rate that the protagonists and other survivors have little time to adapt to the situation. They are constantly bombarded and are forced to get creative if they hope to survive. Some are even forced to sacrifice themselves so that others may live. There are constant developments and many setbacks that occur. Anything that can go wrong is definitely going to go wrong, making for the kind of bad day that Jack Bauer of 24 is used to having. I was glad to see that Yeon’s story did not keep them in the train for the entire film. The train provides the ultimate nowhere-to-run scenario, but the story does move to a few different locations as well. They do not abandon the train though, and this setting will consume the majority of the film. As with any zombie film there is going to be critique and discussion over how the zombies are used. That is, of course, if you even consider them zombies. To me, these creatures are a hybrid of zombies and “infected”. They run, which can apply to both the zombie and infected sub-genres. They kill, which also applies to both. The difference to me is why they are killing. In general they kill simply to kill, which is a trademark of the infected. You don’t see many of these antagonists eating those they have killed, which is why I cannot say these are true zombies. They are referred to as zombies by the characters in the film, so if anything they could a reimaging of zombies with no ties to the standards set by the likes of George A. Romero.
Sang-ho Yeon’s direction is superb and expertly brought his story to life. This starts with the look and tone of the film. Train to Busan is a visually engaging flick, and cinematographer Hyung-deck Lee delivers crafty camerawork that immerses us into the experience. I was pleased with the sets used, from the bullet train to the few stops it makes along the way. There is always horror lurking around every corner and Yeon’s execution leaves you anticipating the worst to come. The acting performances from everyone involved were great, and it was because of these performances (alongside good writing) that you will find yourself heartbroken over some of the deaths. Had there been more antagonists there would have been some gratifying kills, but regardless the kills are brutal and delivered with practical effects. I won’t say this is an overly gory film, but there is enough gore to keep zombie aficionados pleased. Again, because these zombies don’t really eat their victims you won’t see the kind of gut-munching gore associated with the sub-genre. With this great execution comes great tension and numerous thrills that make this a great “beer and wings” flick to enjoy with your friends. Sang-ho Yeon hit a home with with his first live-action at-bat, and I will definitely keep my eyes peeled to see what he delivers in the future.
Overall, Train to Busan is an fantastic experience that adds new thrills to the zombie/infected sub-genres. From start to finish the film does no wrong and delivers everything you could ask for. I highly recommend this experience.