A claustrophobic setting provides great tension in this exciting cross-country tour of terror
“At a time like this, only watch out for yourself.”
It’s been a while since I last saw a zombie film that really had me on the edge of my seat. So long, in fact, that I’m having a hard time thinking of one. I remember scenes from certain movies, like I am Legend for example, but few where I’ve been gripped from the all the way through. Train to Busan is one of them, and is all the more surprising because I fully expected this film to be awful. Coming out at a time when our collective love of zombie-themed entertainment is at an all-time low (how well did the incredibly late-to-the-party Pride and Prejudice and Zombies do?), Train to Busan had a bit of an uphill climb.
It centres around Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a divorced fund manager, inattentive father and overall selfish prat. While he’s not really a bad guy his work life and general self-driven attitude has put him at odds with his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an). As a birthday present to her, he decides to take his daughter to Busan to see her mother. As the titular train is about to depart, a woman crashes the party and begins convulsing on the floor. A train attendant attempts to help, only to be bitten by her.
And so our zombie pandemic starts. Our main characters include: soon-to-be-father Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his very pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), highschool baseball player Young-gook (Choi Woo-shik) and his cheerleader Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee), two old women whose names I’ve forgotten, a homeless guy, and professional dickbag Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung) who is the president of the train company. As the outbreak grows, so does the chaos on board the train.
Where Train to Busan works is in its confined setting -this is its biggest success. Once in a while they’ll move somewhere else such as a stopping briefly in Daejeon, but always goes back to its cramped namesake. Having a zombie outbreak in a place with basically no room for maneuvering is a clever idea, and forces the filmmakers to come up with smart ways for characters to go from one carriage to the next without getting attacked. These scenes are the most tense and the most entertaining, giving the characters (and writers) a chance to branch out and do something other than shoot zombies in the head or run them down with cars.
This also provides our main characters with a lot of chances to interact and because of it we’re given a film that feels loaded with genuine, if maybe overly diverse, characters. What I mean is that to keep the dynamics interesting, like in a lot of survival movies, we get one of each “type” of person. One jock, one bully, one nerd and so on. But despite the cookie-cutter archetypes the actors are given they do a lot with them, imbuing them with plenty of life. It’s hard to single out any one member of the cast but Kim Eui-sung does a great job of playing Yong-suk who grows into one of the most detestable characters in recent cinema. Ma Dong-seok is incredibly charming and likeable, and becomes one of the movie’s most entertaining pieces.
Also props to the stunt guys playing the zombies. Reminiscent of World War Z, these guys tend to fall into that “human ocean” category of zombies, where they’ll all pile up on top of each other or start falling out helicopters without consequence. This makes for some awkward CG here and there, but where the zombies shine is in their jerks and movements. Watching them is fascinating because they move like breakdancers unconcerned with pain. They’re not super athletes like in 28 Days Later, but they’re not lumbering and sleepy like Romero’s movies. They move like they’re angry, hungry and suffer no consequences if they fall over. It’s a pretty cool sight.
Throw in some social commentary that I’m not remotely qualified to talk about and Train to Busan is a really well-made zombie flick. It checks all the boxes without resorting to cliché and offers new twists on the genre without going too far over the top. It might not be a terrifying film, playing out more like an action movie at times, but it keeps you on the edge of your seat and engaged throughout, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of similar titles.
Verdict: Well-thought out and packed with great moments, Train to Busan is one of the best zombie films of recent years
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Likeable characters: 8/10
Trains to Busan: 1
Who the real monster was: Corporate Korea. Or the zombies. Probably both?
Party dynamics: One tank, two DPS. Missing one healer
Moral of the story: Don’t let people on the train without a ticket
Recommendation level: Perfect this Hallowe’en
Train to Busan (2016)
Also known as: 부산행 (Busanhaeng)
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Writer: Park Joo-suk
Gong Yoo – Seok-woo
Kim Su-an – Su-an
Ma Dong-seok – Sang-hwa
Jung Yu-mi – Seong-kyeong
Kim Eui-sung – Yong-suk
Choi Woo-shik – Young-gook
Ahn So-hee – Jin-hee
Choi Gwi-hwa – the homeless man
Jung Suk-yong – Train conductor
Ye Soo-jung – In-gil
Park Myung-sin – Jong-gil
Jang Hyuk-jin – Ki-chul
Kim Chang-hwan – Kim Jin-mo
Shim Eun-kyung – Runaway Girl
Other movies like this: Snakes on a Plane? Or more seriously, Snowpiercer