I don’t mean to brag, but I think my native South Korea has produced one of the best zombie films in quite some time. What’s neat is that it’s not a seemingly empty action/horror blockbuster movie that features zombies front and center. While the undead certainly play a key role in the film, they ultimately play second fiddle to where the true drama lies. Taking inspiration from recent domestic incidents, Train to Busan is an emotionally grounded and taut disaster film that delivers entertainment in spades.
Packed with a lean, well-crafted story, this is a blockbuster film done right. It’s a bit predictable in the sense that you can bet who lives and who dies, but what matters is that the emotional punches – which, thankfully, are never overwrought – land whenever these unfortunate souls bite the dust. That’s because writer-director Yeon Sang-ho acquaints us with the characters – who encompass all ages and classes – on board this hellish train, and each of them comes with a recognizable trait. Their individual arcs and interactions with one another keep us invested in the proceedings, and Yeon deftly brings out the humanity in all of them, even those whom we come to dislike. This in turn makes the running theme of self-preservation vs. social responsibility in a disaster situation much more complex and tangible. Speaking of disaster, the zombies are a brilliant metaphor for the 2014 Sewol tragedy and the 2015 MERS outbreak, and in the film, reports indicating a slow government response as well as the way certain passengers behave reflect facets of those very incidents. While Yeon doesn’t hammer us over our heads with these cues, he does bite off just a little more than he could chew, as there is a slight twist towards the end of the second act in regards to the main protagonist Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his business ties that doesn’t quite work since it comes out of nowhere.
Yeon has assembled an eclectic cast to bring his characters to life. While Gong is fine in the lead role, he doesn’t always convince when sharing the frame with his character’s daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), as his emotional expressions can be flat. Effortlessly nailing Soo-an’s inquisitiveness, childlike yet steadfast morality, and slightly repressed daughterly love, Kim is terrific and holds her own quite well. A real highlight here is Ma Dong-seok as Sang-hwa, the brash and doting husband to pregnant woman Sung-gyeong (Jung Yu-mi). Ma flits between hilarious and heartfelt, and he shares an affable, easygoing chemistry with Jung, who too impresses. Choi Woo-sik rises to the occasion as adolescent baseball player Young-gook, and Kim Eui-sung relishes playing a scummy corporate businessman who may be more dangerous than the zombies to his fellow passengers.
As a blockbuster, the film is exceptionally crafted. Cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok and production designer Lee Mok-won do marvelous work in making the interior of the train feel deeply claustrophobic, and that in turn forces us to become aware of any spaces that could keep the characters safe from any undead menace. One caveat, though, is how the brightness level annoying changes throughout the picture. This would be fine if it occurs during transitions, but that’s not the case – instead, the frame dims and lightens in the middle of scenes, which is incredibly distracting. The CG work surprisingly holds up very well – a welcome sight given that Korean films tend to falter in this regard. Also great are the zombies themselves. While they aren’t as detailed compared to those in American productions, they can be quite scary because of their jerking movements, which are augmented by some crisp sound design. It should also be noted that the film is restrained in its gore, and editor Yang Jin-mo tends to skillfully cut from the violence at just the right moment, leaving us to imagine the pain and terror of the victims.
Train to Busan is reportedly the first major Korean zombie film, and Yeon pulls it off with confidence and flair. The inspiration for the zombies comes from familiar and painful events, and coupled with the film’s character-centric nature, it makes the story ring true and uniquely Korean. Now, let’s hope that the inevitable American remake won’t suck.
* Photos courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment