Title: Train to Busan
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Length: 118 mins
Starring: Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an
South Korea have done quite well off the back of the whole J-Horror explosion, making several good additions to the wider Asian horror genre. Among the standouts have been Don’t Click (2012), I Saw the Devil (2010), Thirst (2009), and the Wailing (2016). What really put South Korea on the map, however, was Train to Busan. This is one of the more recent examples in the #RetView series, only premiering at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. I generally lean toward movies more than a decade old, and I only make exceptions in special cases. Train to Busan is certainly one of those. It went on to be nominated for a slew of awards, even winning a couple, filled theaters, and became a surprise hit all over the world. Sold.
The film starts predictably enough with a ‘minor leak’ at a biochemical facility. Always a concern. You know the situation isn’t going to improve from there. It certainly doesn’t improve much for a deer we see mown down by a truck driver. But don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie because the very dead, very milky-eyed buck is soon back up on its feet. This prologue gives enough clues as to what’s happening, and going to happen, that you don’t even have to turn on the subtitles if you don’t want to. Oblivious to the zombified deer, Seok-woo (Yoo), a divorced workaholic fund manager, is asking his disinterested colleagues what to buy his young daughter, Su-an (really Su-an) for her birthday. Apparently, he has a ton of money but is low on parenting skills. It’s eventually decided that for her birthday, all Su-an wants is to visit her mother in Busan (South Korea’s so-called second city, putting it on a par with Birmingham, I guess). Seok-woo reluctantly agrees, and they board a train at Seoul station with a random assortment of other passengers including a tough, working class husband and his heavily-pregnant wife, a nasty, self-centered CEO, and a baseball team who, luckily enough, have brought their bats. They’re going to need them.
As the train departs the station we see a young woman with a wound to her leg convulsing who then turns into a zombie. The virus quickly spreads throughout the train, and indeed the country, one memorable scene showing the (so far) unaffected glued to their smartphones watching news reports and footage uploaded onto social media. From there, the film turns into a survival horror as the survivors not only have to protect themselves from the zombies trapped on the train with them, but also those on the outside as everywhere they stop seems to be overrun.
An interesting point comes in the first third when the snarling, blood crazed zombies storm through the train. The few citizens who are left lock the doors of the carriages, and for a few moments we see that the only thing separating the people from the zombie hordes is a sheet of glass. The contrast is stark. They are so close together, yet so far apart. I couldn’t help wondering if this was a handy metaphor not just for rich and poor, but for North and South Korea. In fact, you could go one step further and see the mindless zombies as representing the creeping threat of communism as a whole. Zombies have always been good for metaphors.
On paper it’s hard to explain what makes Train to Busan so good. You can point to certain elements like the cinematography and the musical score, which certainly contribute, along with the fine acting and superb special effects. But I think the one thing that sets it apart from most other zombie movies, and most other movies period, is its energy and vitality. And I do realize how ironic that might sound when talking about the undead who generally speaking, apart from the 28 films, aren’t exactly renowned for their energy or vitality. Despite the bulk of the action being confined to a couple of train carriages, director Yeon Sang-ho, who made his name in animation, does a superb job of picking you up and sweeping you along with the flow. It’s icky and claustrophobic, but only when it has to be and more by design than necessity. There is gore a-plenty, but a strong sense of morality pervades with an even mix of good guys and bad guys, and lot of fun to be had, too. Word is that the movie is currently being remade in English by Gaumont. Because apparently, what the world needs right now is yet another English-language zombie film.
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Shortly after Train to Busan dropped, an animated prequel, written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho was released. Featuring an entirely new cast of characters, Seoul Station explains how a homeless man was the source of the infection. Not the deer, then. Seoul Station currently boasts a 100% approval rating on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.