Train to Busan
While a zombie-virus breaks out in South Korea, a couple of passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.
Train to Busan is a zombie horror film, through and through. True, these ravenous creatures are not the old-school preferential shambling corpses of Romero lore, they’re infected (a la Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later) and fast-moving monsters more akin to the cannibalistic nightmare of the Dawn of the Dead remake.
I’ve never had a problem with the “turbo-zombies” (as my older brother christened them) because frankly, they scare the shit out of me. Train to Busan is another shining example that the faster zombies have rightfully earned a place in zombie-movie history. They’re unpredictable and swift… and therefore – just a different kind of terrifying.
Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) and his young daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) are taking (what should be) a short train trip from the metropolis of Seoul to Busan (there’s your title) to see Seok Woo’s estranged wife – as a birthday gift to Soo-an. Some sort of viral outbreak has just begun – mere moments before this father/daughter duo boards the train. Victims of the disease – just seconds after becoming infected – turn into homicidal flesh-eaters who contort their body and attack anyone and anything. The travelling train quickly becomes a no-man’s land, where several disparate groups of survivors attempt to keep the creatures at bay – in certain train cars. Various news sources offer hope that forthcoming train depots may be militarized and therefore safe (as the epidemic is obviously not contained to just this particular train). It becomes a race against time as the ever-dwindling group of survivors try to reach loved ones (both on and off the train) and reach what they believe to be the ultimate safe-zone – Busan.
Taking a cue from such films as World War Z (the zombies movement and capabilities to “create” a larger and stronger moving “organism”) and the futuristic thriller Snowpiercer (it’s an actual dangerous quest to make it from car to car to where the “safety” is) make for a thrilling zombie epic – the likes of which I’ve not seen in some time.
I’ve always been a rabid (ahem) fan of zombie films which capture the effects and terror of those awful first minutes/hours/days of a zombie apocalypse. It’s the confusion, the chaos, the rampant death and the bad choices – i.e. the problem of simple human error and human emotion – which fuel such terrific zombie nightmares. Train to Busan is all of these things and it’s a really wild and breath-taking ride (pun intended).
Performances are all believable – and it’s just what you’d expect from a huge ensemble. There’s not much backstory to be had (other than for Seok and Soo-an), so there is some flirting with stereotypes (including the asshole rich dude who thinks he can buy safety with money). But all of the actors surrender to the horror around them, and it only propels the film forward. We may not care about every single one of these poor souls, but we sure as heck believe that they’re terrified!
I was a bit shocked by the performance from Soo-an Kim as the daughter. She’s pretty good (not amazing) throughout, but nothing will prepare you for her acting prowess once the climax reaches its fever-pitch. This young actress pulls out all the stops and delivers an emotional moment which seriously took me aback. I shed plenty of tears – yes, because of the situation as a whole – but more-so for the intensity this girl brought to the moment – and it went on and on painfully. It broke my heart. Based on so many of the other amazing and note-worthy performances from young actors in horror films this year (The Witch, The Monster, The Wailing) – 2016 must be some sort of record-holder for awe-inspiring performances from up and coming youth actors.
It wasn’t all perfection; as these aforementioned final few moments with Seok Woo and Soo-an fell short of the earlier greatness. The film properly established the relationship between these central characters and you truly cared for them. But the filmmakers chose to ruin a very powerful and heart-breaking moment at the film’s climax, by cutting from the action and giving us a very schmaltzy flashback. No! So unnecessary and too often used as some sort of crutch in far too many films. In this case, I was personally already invested and emotionally rapt at the events leading up to the flashback. The use of this unwelcome tool was just a bad idea. It cheapens the emotional depth of these last moments.
There is some goofiness to be had – in amongst all of the flesh-eating and running about. Seok and two other passengers; a cocky dude with a pregnant wife – Sang Hwa (an awesome supporting performance by Dong-seok Ma) and young baseball player Young Gook (Woo-sik Choi) make plans to get through six cars filled with the infected – in order to reach their respective loved ones. It involves lots of silly banter and “ready for battle” prepping. It’s actually a welcome break from all of the ultra-violence up to that point. And believe me, it doesn’t get any better for anyone after that, so take the humor where you can get it.
The zombies themselves are blessed with terrific make-up and disturbing performances from the many, many extras playing them. It looks like most of the background folks must have been contortionists in another life, as each time someone new is infected, their bodies bend into strange and uncomfortable angles – and these jerky body movements continue even after the victims have “changed”. It’s just another grotesque zombie detail which will have you squirming in your seat.
The film itself is beautifully shot. There are high angles capturing vistas as the train speeds through the South Korean countryside. The editing is also absolutely stunning – there’s never a moment when you won’t feel on edge with what’s happening. The film is blessed with a fast pace (mirroring the fast-moving train) and with the train’s forward movement mirroring the story’s very linear structure – you’ll rarely have a chance to catch your breath.
I really loved this film. And if you’re a sucker for well done, emotionally engaging human drama mixed with thrilling zombie goodness – you absolutely will too. I plan to take this one in again – as soon as it becomes part of my personal zombie collection.
And if you needed further convincing that this film is worthy your time, my recent article for Horror Freak News – where I chose my 2016 Top 15 Horror Films – finds Train to Busan in a mighty fine spot at #4! Here’s a link to that article.
Finally, Train to Busan is already on track (train track?) for an English-language remake. Check out that piece of news from our own Joshua Millican.
Train to Busan is currently available on VOD with a DVD/Blu-ray release in January.