Review: Train to Busan (2016)(Eng. Sub.)

“Dad, you only care about yourself. That’s why mommy left.”

*This review may contain spoilers*

Train to Busan is a South Korean Action Horror movie directed by Sang-ho Yeon (The King of Pigs, The Fake) and stars Gong Yoo (Goblin) and Ma Dong-seok (The Outlaws). When a zombie apocalypse rapidly sweeps South Korea, estranged father Seok-woo seeks safety for his young daughter during a long-haul train journey to Busan.

Whenever word of an Asian movie begins to sweep as far as England, I can always expect to see exceptional storytelling expressed with a fine balance between style and substance. Especially with the onslaught of regular low-grade zombie movies, Train to Busan attempts to break the mould by putting the drama, story and characters before the zombie action, bolstered by a well stretched, surprisingly lower than expected budget. The setting of a narrow train lends itself perfectly to a feeling of claustrophobia that reminds you not to sit back in your seat, with a mixture of clever scenes that feel well designed to keep the tension rising. Whether our characters are crawling across the luggage overhead space refraining from making any noise or being crammed into a toilet cubicle surrounded by severely overpowered zombies, the film rarely loosens the knot in your stomach that tightens with every scene. I love seeing this level of macro plot design, when a plot or setting lends itself to the films genre the scenes can really excel. Another great example of this could be Speed with Keanu Reeves, in which the fast-paced story of a bus that cannot drop below 50mph lends itself to the action genre. The confined setting of a train lends itself to horror, giving us multiple tense, original and hair-raising scenes that laser themselves into the backs of your movie subconscious. Even when the setting opens up (when our few survivors reach an empty Daejeon Station), we get a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right, which leads to the most effective scene in the film. As our group heads down the escalators, an enormous gathering of infected are stood aimlessly at the bottom, which leads to a state of pure panic for both the characters and the audience. It is a brutal reminder that our characters are never safe and the sheer amount of infected mitigates the illusion that open space is any better than the narrow train cabins.

We can’t discuss a zombie movie without analysing the zombies! Train to Busan’s zombie design can be closely compared to 2013’s World War Z, in which the zombies overpower the remaining survivors to the point that the audience is left wondering how anyone could even make it out alive. The enemies are horrifyingly fast and the infection rate takes a page from the book of 28 Days Later, causing a swift disaster throughout the train and keeps our group constantly on the back foot. The actors contort themselves in such a way that had me questioning whether they were dancers or if the movements were done by CGI, which adds another physically chilling element that gives the zombies a distinct differential to remember them by. Their forward moving aggression has groups of enemies falling over each other, drawing another similarity to World War Z’s famously ant-like zombie pile ups. The pandemic has a basic origin, but is cleverly connected to our lead that introduces Seok-woo as having a lack of morals, when he advises a client to remain invested in the biological factory that leaks the infection, but immediately sells all his own stock. The subject of our leads selfish depravity is at the centre of both the character’s and the movie’s base theme, which plays out as a fantastic arc and a social commentary on Korean culture that is uncommon to the genre.

The dynamic between our lead survivors and their individual reactions to the outbreak appear very human and real, with each character having contrasting relationships to one another. This is most evident with the character Seok-woo and his interactions with the “action hero” type Sang-hwa (played with such likeability and subtle humour from actor Ma Dong-seok) and the villainous Yon-suk, a cowardice COO who has the audience begging for his retribution. The duality between these two side characters is fantastic, as they act almost like the angel and devil on Seok-woo’s shoulders. The film opens with Seok-woo as a selfish businessman who is an “expert in leaving useless people behind” and openly teaches his daughter to only look out for herself, which is Yon-suk’s defining characteristic throughout the movie. Each event progressively builds upon our leads nature, as he learns that he can only keep his daughter safe by synergising with others, as seen when Sang-hwa (a man who he had previously left to die) and the unstable homeless man go out of their way to save both him and his daughter. Sang-hwa is the archetype of the hero character that we long for Seok-woo to become, which heightens the touching sacrifice in which Sang-hwa passes the baton to Seok-woo. Other reviewers have commented on this amazingly well thought out moment, but when Seok-woo is assaulting Yon-suk for his selfishness leading to other people’s deaths, he is metaphorically destroying the part of himself that was a mirror image to Yon-suk. This level of character design is something I haven’t seen in a zombie horror since possibly The Last of Us or maybe the first couple of seasons of The Walking Dead, both of which had countless more hours to play with than the 2 hour run time of Train to Busan. Sang-hwa may be the fan favourite performance as the relatable, badass soon-to-be father, but my biggest praise goes to Kim Su-an as Seok-woo’s young daughter. For a child actor to have me forgetting that they are even acting is a feat that really stands out from the crowd, and she absolutely nails the final scenes with mournful cries that will pull at your heart in a way that no other horror film has done in recent years.

Train to Busan isn’t void of the zombie horror tropes, but it impressively subverts expectations with ideas that you didn’t know you wanted until you see them. How many times have we seen survivors face off with hordes of undead with exposed arms, legs or necks, or heavy weaponry like a shotgun or a rifle? The films characters and plot are grounded, so it makes sense when they are forced to use books, bats and even their fists to fight off the undead, which plays well to the threatening intensity that Train to Busan builds upon. One scene had us thankfully joyful that our heroes finally realised to strap their forearms with padding and tape, just before going into an epic fight sequence that provides an enjoyable hiatus from horror to action. The characters show resourcefulness several times throughout the film, for example when Seok-woo uses a ringing phone to divert the horde or by using the lack of light from tunnels to sneak passed them. It is rare for horror movie survivors to show any sign of real-world common sense, adding another layer of relatability and believability which has us rooting for them more than your average “stand completely still as zombies walk towards us” idiots we expect.

I want to sit here and say that Train to Busan is flawless, but it does unfortunately fall subject to some annoying (although forgivable!) surface level issues. As commonplace with stock enemies, the filmmakers needed to exploit some weakness’ if the audience were ever going to believe that the characters stood any real chance of surviving. I’ve mentioned the lack of light rendering the zombies almost blind, which was actually a positive point in the film that leads to some suspenseful silent scenes. What did not work at all, however, was Seok-woo’s almost instant realisation of this, where he suggests out of no where that the zombies attack because they can see them. The group then blocks themselves from view by using water to stick paper to the glass, but it really grated me at first as to where they even began to figure this out. A minor issue, but annoying, nonetheless. Secondly, and undoubtedly more ridiculous, is when one group of survivors forces our leads to move to another carriage from fear of infection, but the carriage they are sent to is one further away from the zombies! This was entirely blatant and is a real headscratcher, only serving to create a cool scene in which the unreasonable group gets massacred by the undead, which was highly satisfactory and possibly some redemption for its stupidity. Some moments of CGI were also apparent and appear unnecessary, particularly in the third act, but I put this down to the filmmakers attempt to stay within budget and it doesn’t distract too much from the high stakes finale. It looks as though the upcoming sequel, Peninsula, will be upping the action and CGI, so hopefully the worldwide success of Train to Busan will warrant a budget capable of better grounding the effects. The recent announcement of a sequel is something fans have been begging for since seeing the concluding shot that connotates that there is light at the end of the tunnel (both physically and metaphorically). Be warned, this final scene is a tear-jerker, with Su-an’s sorrowful song that she wrote for her father being the only thing that keeps the two alive, suggesting he is still keeping her safe even after death.

Train to Busan transcends the zombie horror genre and does so with the style we can expect from Korean cinema. Brimming with deeper meanings and social commentaries, the film is begging to be positively picked apart and revisited by both film students and casual horror buffs alike. Grounded character design and great pacing keeps viewers hooked for its entirety, with clever sequences that build intensity with every scene. Train to Busan has enough substance that looks like the beginning of a new franchise and I eagerly anticipate seeing whether Peninsula can carry the torch. It seems as though zombie movies may hold a bias on me, as I give Train to Busan my second 10/10!

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