It seems as though the well-hidden secret to creating a hit Korean film is a claustrophobic train setting (see 2015 Snowpiercer). But this time with the additions of shaky cam ‘28 Days Later’ Usain Bolt zombies and sprinkles of low budget digital Mad Max-esque effects.
Train to Busan follows Seok Woo, a divorced workaholic whose relationship with his daughter is going down the drain. After ruining her birthday by giving her a duplicate present, he promises to make it up to her by acceding to her only request for him; to accompany her to a trip to Busan to visit her mother. But we soon find out that this is not just an ordinary train ride on the KTX to Busan as we are shown hints of an impending epidemic which will soon prove to be life-threatening to the passengers on board the train. The element of foreshadowing is used heavily as the film also subtly gives us a heads up of the major players on the train by revealing glimpses of them right before they board the train so we mentally remember to take note of their influence during the train ride.
This zombie flick is unique in the sense that it is vastly different from the Hollywood type of zombie genre. It addresses how the social and corporate standing of a person can affect his personality and that translates into giving us characters whom we completely and whole-heartedly care about. We want to see how they grow throughout the film and how their actions impact the fate of others. It turns out to be surprisingly compelling. From the selfish business moguls who will do absolutely anything it takes to survive the ordeal, to the brave badass who uses his bare fists to punch his way out of the apocalypse, there will definitely be someone we can relate to. Their thought-provoking exploits in the midst of all the nerve-wrecking tension succinctly captures how such a catastrophe brings out the worst in humans, making them the real monsters. The film intelligently recognizes this and shines a spotlight on this theme by highlighting the transformation of characters which pays off emotionally in the finale.
I would like to especially commend the slow moments away from all the zombie filled anarchy. Although the dialogue at those parts may seem useless on hindsight, the director smartly ties up all that loose information together as the show progresses and it actually contributes to the overall coherence of the story. It is akin to a lightbulb/ déjà vu moment when the script finally comes full circle to make use of that piece of dialogue to advance the story further and open more doors for the film to delve into. It feels utterly satisfying to realize that that scene didn’t really waste your time at all.
The suspense is brilliantly amplified with well-staged zombie massacres and escape sequences. You will feel completely immersed in the environment and situation the characters are being thrown in and that is how a movie should feel like; an experience. At least that was how I felt. However, a few scenes may raise questions to some, like the apparent deafness of passengers let alone their lack of any propensity to detect any danger when a reanimated being is playing a rock concert by clanging the windows and toilet doors in the train cabin. Not to mention their decadently marinated body having a seizure, limbs bent at awkward positions. But lambasting something so trivial like that would just make you a nit-picky douche, maybe satisfy your libido by being overly critical. Your mind will be exploding with so much anxiety that you wouldn’t be batting an eye at something so unimportant like this.
The only thing Train to Busan may seem to benefit from for me would be an exponential increase in the number of heads flying and an endless fountain of bloody, spewing guts. Anyhow, Train to Busan may be a simple zombie show but its ideas and set-pieces are the stars which elevate the film, making it brim with suspense as they are flawlessly executed.
Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho (Seoul Station)
Written by: Park Joo-suk
Starring: Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an, Kim Eui-sang, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee
Running time: 118 minutes