Zombie movies. Love ’em. It’s not just the standard horror movie thrill, but the way they are a great way to explore and critique mass society. However, as a asian film fan, the classic Western Cinema version of the Zombie is a horror trope that is rarely examined. It isn’t without precedent, for example I have reviewed ‘The Neighbour Zombie‘ and ‘Zombie 108‘ in the past few years, but they were on the whole fairly unsatisfying. And then came this one. Fantastic word of mouth, and some fantastic reviews (even the bad ones seemed to be sneering about the genre rather than the film itself). Director Yeon Sang-ho has made a couple of really highly regarded and dark animated features, so I was very interested how he world turn his hand to live action. So yeah, I was fairly excited when I got hold of this one with fansubs. Shall we see how it all turned out?
Fund Manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a work obsessed man, whose devotion to his career has driven his wife to divorce him and move away, and made his young daughter Soon-an (Kim Su-an) emotionally distant. Yet another failed birthday gift attempt leads him to grant her the one thing she wants – a trip to Busan to see her mother. He grudgingly agrees, and the pair jump on an early train to the seaside. The timing could not have been worse, as Korea descends into chaos that very morning. A fast moving infection that turns people into the bloodthirsty undead sweeps across the country, and one of these poor infected gets on the train just as it is about to leave. Cue lots of victims very quickly indeed. Seok-woo bands together with a number of survivors, such as the burly Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife (Jung Yu-mi), a young Baseball-playing student (Choi Woo-shik) and his girlfriend (former Wondergirls member SoHee), a couple of elderly sisters (Ye Soo-jung and Park Myung-sin) and a homeless guy (Choi Gwi-hwa). Also present is high level executive Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung), who uses his status to ensure his own safety during the chaos. We get the usual number of separations, action sequences and deaths, so will anyone make it to the end? Will Seok-woo find the ability to become the better person his young daughter so wants? Well you’ll find out after 2 hours of the most harrowing train ride ever.
“Train to Busan” is quite simply magnificent. On a purely visual and visceral level it succeeds. It starts with a fabulous opening sequence involving resurrecting roadkill, slowly builds the tension with a series of half-glimpsed background events (seriously, the way the initial infected girl slips on the train is a moment of choreography that is breathtaking in its simplicity), before erupting into a crazy, violent storm. With added Korean Melodrama (TM) and biting social commentary.
Let’s talk first about the Zombies. These are far more of the “28 Days Later”/”World War Z” ilk – they move amazingly fast and with a pack instinct. They swarm everywhere, hungry for flesh, with no regard for their own safety – during the film they will fall from buildings, train roofs and military helicopters like some bloody force of nature. The infection is also nigh-on instant, with angular and spastic unnatural movements accompanying the resurrection of the victims. However, they are creatures of instinct – able only to react to what they can see or hear, with silence and darkness (such as when the train goes through a tunnel) causing them to stop and wander in a bewildered state.
Director Yeon wisely doesn’t just leave us on the train, he makes a couple of detours to stations along the way – one is full of tension as we wait for the s*** to hit the fan, the other takes us to a place that is even more claustrophobic and dangerous. The action is almost never ceasing and pretty much no character is safe (although I think you could probably work out who might be around for the final reel). He also knows his zombie movies.. there are nods here and there to previous Zombie films, including a smart callback to the granddaddy of them all, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ as the film closes.
I have read some criticising the character work – and this has some merit. Outside of Seok-woo and his daughter, we get little or no backstory on anyone. And the characters on display are fairly broad interpretations of modern South Korean archetypes. I wasn’t too bothered out this – the thrill ride aspect of the film needed forward momentum, not deep conversations and flashbacks. Not only that, but the social commentary would not have been so biting if we actually gave a stuff about most of the passengers. So we get broad criticism of Korean Confucian society (think of the train as a less pretentious ‘Snowpiercer’), as well as moments that are a little more specific. The film clearly has much to say about the MV Sewol disaster, with Yong-suk standing in for the self-serving establishment, and a quite harrowing moment with bodies floating in a river.
Despite the fairly broadly drawn characters and genre limitations, the acting is great. Ma Dong-seok is fabulously charismatic as the blue-collar muscle man who is deeply in love with his wife. Jung Yu-mi projects her usual mix of strength through fragility and Kim Su-an is yet another fantastic Korean Child Actress. Gong Yoo is ok too – maybe a little bland, but that’s what you get with him.
It isn’t all perfect though. The final act is a little overlong. The speed of infection also suddenly becomes a little variable when the plot requires it. You could suggest it is a little predictable. There is also a totally unnecessary subplot that pretty much suggests the cause of the outbreak might be down to Seok-woo’s compnay, and maybe he is culpable. It goes nowhere and seems to do little more than seal one particular character’s fate.
However, I loved it. If it was a stupid big blockbuster that would be enough. But the fact it adds levels of social commentary as well as adding the kind of gut-wrenching melodrama that only Korean cinema can provide means there is only one result. Very Highly Recommended.
Oh, and there’s also an animated prequel – ‘Seoul Station’. If I find that? I’ll review it too.