Review: Train to Busan (2016)

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Like the best films in the zombie apocalypse subgenre (such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake), Train to Busan succeeds as both a ripping thriller and biting social commentary. The title references the KTX high-speed rail line that runs from the capital Seoul, in the northwest of the country, to the second city, Busan, on the southeast coast across from Japan. Cutting diagonally across the peninsular country, the KTX also passes through major cities such as Deajon and Deagu.* Thus, the train, with its restricted space yet moveable location, elegantly supplies the film with a setting to explore both its narrower and wider interests. Featuring confined railcar suspense as well as large-scale disaster action, Train to Busan thrills and excites as it offers a window seat on some prominent tensions and concerns in 21st-century Korean culture and society.

In the film, a zombie infection strikes South Korea as a father, Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), and his estranged young daughter (Kim Su-an) travel by train to Busan to visit his separated wife. Seok-woo is a successful, ruthless fund manager. He works all the time and is losing touch with his daughter. When he misses her school recital, she demands to go see her mother. As they drive to the train station early the next morning, emergency vehicles race past them through the still-dark streets of early-morning Seoul. The character and zombie apocalypse setups are both efficient and economical, giving the audience just enough information about Seok-woo’s family life and teasing with just enough of the ominous signs that should begin any good disaster movie.

As the train sets off with a troubled, twitching young woman getting onboard at the last second, we are introduced to the various characters: there are a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) and her tough-guy husband (Ma Dong-seok), a team of teenage baseball players (most notably Choi Woo-sik) and the cool girl (Sohee, former member of the pop group Wonder Girls), and a high-stressed corporate boss (Kim Eui-sung), among others.

The setup also indicates how Train to Busan focuses on family drama and interpersonal dynamics while presenting glimpses of the large-scale social catastrophe occurring across the country. Most zombie films involve trapping a small number of characters in a confined space (think the house in Night of the Living Dead or the mall in Dawn of the Dead), but the train setting allows for a slightly novel approach to the social microcosm of most zombie movies. The confined railcar setting amps up the claustrophobic tension and fear of the zombie attack, as the train bullets south through a country falling into chaos. The viewer gets to experience a journey across South Korea as well as a microcosm of Korean society onboard the train.

The character dynamics expose tensions between the self-centredness and cutthroat individual competition of modern-day life and more traditional Korean values of familial duty and communal loyalty. It’s no accident that the most ruthless character is the CEO of a large corporation. In Korean society, the bonds of family are very strong and demand certain obligations, but we also see the strain of 21st-century professional life, with its emphasis on career ambition and advancement, on Seok-woo’s family life. In a fairly conventional yet effective way, Seok-woo must learn to become a better father and neighbour amidst the zombie crisis and the self-interest it inflames.

Overall, the zombie action is thrilling and fairly inventive. These are the fast, raging zombies first introduced in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. At one point, zombie’s accrue to the back of a train, crawling onto each other and swelling the mass hanging behind the train car, allowing even more zombie’s to attach. I was reminded of the ant-like zombies in World War Z, climbing en masse over the walls of Jerusalem. Train to Busan offers gripping and fun close-quarters fighting as well as larger-scale disaster action, most notably a train crash.

For those unfamiliar with Korean films, the usual mix of gore, goofy humour, and high emotional drama might be surprising. Train to Busan is less silly than many, but there are plenty of character deaths milked for maximum emotion. Like The Host, the Korean monster blockbuster that became an international hit in the mid-2000s, Train to Busan is both an effective genre film as well as a good introduction to South Korean cinema, which continues to be one of the most dynamic on the planet today.

*The KTA also passes through the small city Miryang, where I lived and taught for a year in the late 2000s.

7 out of 10

Train to Busan (2016, South Korea)

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk & Yeon Sang-ho; starring Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Su-an, Choi Woo-sik, Kim Eui-sung, and Sohee.