“Train to Busan” – Movie Review

Title: Train To Busan
Hangul Title: 부산행
Literal Translation: For Busan
Run Time: 118 minutes
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment (USA) / Next Entertainment World (International)
Director: Yeon Sang-Ho
Writer: Park Joo-Suk, Yeon Sang-Ho
Cinematographer: Lee Hyung-Duk
Producers: Lee Dong-Ha, Kim Yeon-Ha
Starring: Gong Yoo, Kim Soo-An, Ma Dong-Seok, Jung Yu-Mi,
Kim Eui-Sung, Choi Woo-Sik, Jun Suk-Yong

It has been a very good year for South Korean horror cinema. Hot on the heels of the stunning — and bonafide hit — The Wailing (see review here) comes Yeon Sang-Ho’s Train To Busan, an immensely suspenseful, unusually moving and utterly entertaining entry into the zombie genre. In this reviewer’s opinion, it is the very best zombie film since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later hit the screen back in 2002.

The plot of the film is fairly straight-forward: Seok-Woo (the unconventionally handsome Gong Yoo, Silenced and Oscar contender The Age of Shadows) is a hedge fund manager in Seoul and not the most moral of people. As one of his major investments is headed seriously south (due to unexplained deaths of a massive number of animals), he pleads with an investor not to panic, trying to convince her that her actions could spark the collapse of an already jittery market. Simultaneously, however, he instructs his subordinate to sell all shares of the same company that his own company holds. He is as divorced from the plight of ordinary people as he is estranged from his wife (now living across the country in Busan) and nine-year-old daughter Soo-Ahn (the impressive Kim Soo-Ahn) of whom he shares custody.

It is easy to see why Seok-Woo is divorced. His work is his life; the endless pursuit of money blinding him to what is truly important and anesthetizing him to the needs of others. He spends almost no time with his daughter. He doesn’t seem to have any the slightest concept of who she is, leaving her almost exclusively in the care of her Grandmother. Thanks largely to the nuanced and subtle performance by Yoo, however, we see that deep down he wants to change that. He wants to connect with his daughter…he simply has forgotten how to do that…with anyone, let alone his own flesh and blood.

Soo-Ahn wants nothing more than to return to her mother (an unseen but omnipresent character) in Busan. While Seok-Woo has promised for weeks to take her there, work has always gotten in the way. But given the next day is her birthday, Seok-Woo realizes he has no choice but to take her home, no matter what the professional cost. Early the next morning, they board the KTX train for Busan at Seoul Station.

Unaware of the chaos engulfing South Korea as they board the train, Seok-Woo and Soo-Ahn settle in for the trip. However, seconds before the train leave Seoul station a young woman — who is clearly infected with some type of virus — boards the train. It isn’t long before Seok-Woo, Soo-Ahn and the other passengers on the KTX train must fight to survive a zombie outbreak and make it to Busan, the only “safe” city left in the nation.

On the train we meet other passengers, but we don’t linger on where they are going or what their personal plight is here. There is no supurflous set-up of each character’s story. Other than our leads, we meet these people only once we are on the KTX and we learn who they are throughout the story. The main players are: Sang-Hwa (the always dependable Ma Dong-Seok), a blue collar worker and his pregnant wife (Jung Yu-Mi); Yong-Gook (Choi Woo-Sik, a South Korean rom-com staple in a nice departure) a member of a young baseball team, and his potential girlfriend; a pair of older generation sisters (with heartbreaking, minimalistic performances by Yee Soo-Jung and Park Myung-Shin); the train pilot (Jung Suk-Yong) and self-absorbed businessman Yong-Suk (versatile Kim Eui-Sung, also recently impressive in the television drama W). It’s a hodge-podge of people who we quickly feel for and, in some cases, with whom we identify.

Okay, okay…I hear you… zombies have been done to death and there is very little new to be added to the genre either in the literary world or its cinematic counterpart. So, does Train to Busan reinvent the genre? Well…no…and yes. The film does add a tiny bit of new lore to the zombie mythos, but more so than reinvent the genre it returns it to its roots.

Unlike bloated, CGI heavy drek like World War Z, Train to Busan with minimal but smart dialog and expert performances, makes you care about the people again. This is a tense, taught, suspenseful story of survival, of personal growth and the MacGuffin here — the means to tell that story — happens to be zombies. In short, Train to Busan manages to be a movie about the best and worst of people and is emotionally resonant in a world that has become the most technologically ever, but increasingly disaffected and indifferent to the plight of others.

Now, don’t get me wrong…this isn’t some heavily character-sodden melodrama. It’s all done very well, director Yeon eliciting full, rich performances from seasoned actors, and making smart script choices with a plot intrinsically tied to the growth of the characters. The zombies are indeed front and center, the first “attack” (blink and you might miss it) coming at just over the fifteen-minute mark, and you won’t be laden down with superfluous character drama. There is blood (plenty) and gore (surprisingly restrained) and plenty of attacks to satisfy the zombiephile in everyone. And a lot of suspense to boot.

All the hallmarks of current zombie lore, old and new, are there. Yeon follows the trend so firmly established (yet not quite invented by) Boyle in 28 Days Later: These zombies are not the classic Romero dead-returning-to-life, but rather “the infected” created by a man-made industrial accident. Wisely, however, Yeon eschews most of the other Boyle-era “improvements.” These are not super-zombies; not super-speedy mega-beings. Neither are they the more lumbering creatures ingrained by Romero. They are somewhere in between…normal “people” who just enjoy the taste of flesh now and again.

Yeon also wisely jettisons the shaky-I can’t-direct-action-so-I’ll-make-it-unwatchable-so-it-passes-for-action-cam that Boyle utilized so well, but which every director since has destroyed. We see what is going on…clearly. And while there is certainly CGI present, it is used sparingly and — for the most part — effectively. Yeon relies mostly on the talent group of actors to portray his zombies; not CGI and make-up effects. There’s certainly blood on their faces, clouded lenses in their eyes and the occasional CGI veining, but mostly the South Korean actors (incredibly well trained from a young age) portraying the zombies rely on their extensive movement and dance training to deliver the frights. Yeon also utilizes some humor early on with the zombies which surprisingly adds to the horror later in the picture.

While Train to Busan certainly is an homage (and furthering) of all the zombie movies that came before, this reviewer felt that the film and the script are also an homage to the very best of the Irwin Allen films of the 70s. These characters are extensions of archetypes found in films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (in fact, a fleeting scene in the early part of the movie is clearly an homage to the latter), which aids Yeon in developing the characters. After all, we know the shell of the characters from these other movies; so through script and performances, Yeon is able to layer on top of that history and give dimension without slowing the plot and action of the piece

The cinematography is crisp and clear and effectively moody as needed. Performances are equally outstanding and subtle. Gong as our “hero” is effectively stoic and yet has the pathos needed to illicit empathy, and Ma, as his blue-collar counterpart, is a nice mix of Ernest Borgnine’s Rogo and Gene Hackman’s Reverend Scott from Poseidon. Of particular note here is young actress Kim Soo-Ahn who gives a standout (yet pleasantly un-brooding) performance as Gong’s daughter.

On a budget of 10 billion won (just under $9 million dollars), Yeon and his team have delivered a fast-paced ride to Busan with plenty of scares and action and American horror films should take notice. Yeon is wise enough to know that all of the foregoing are nothing if you don’t care about people. After all, like Soylent Green, stories are people. And if you don’t care about the people, all the rest tastes flat and stale.

While not nearly as inventive than this season’ earlier The Wailing, Train to Busan is an excellent entry into the genre. It is still in limited release across the country, although it may take some hunting to find…but the search is well worth it. Highly recommended.

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