Written by Robert Frazer on 29 Oct 2016
Distributor STUDIOCANAL • Certificate 15 • Price N/A
Train to Busan is of interest to the UK Anime Network because it's directed by Sang-Ho Yeon, who has a background in animation and has helmed multiple 'aeni' (domestic Korean anime, like how manga-style Korean comics are known as 'manhwa') movies since his directing career began in 2011 - we've previously reviewed his debut feature The King of Pigs. Zombie movie Train to Busan is Sang-Ho Yeon's first live-action feature and it looks certain to be his breakout hit - while his animated movies have usually been well-received on the small-scale festival circuit Train to Busan has overwhelmed them all as a public box-office smash not only in Korea but multiple Eastern territories (according to the Hollywood Reporter the entire gross for his animated movies The King of Pigs and The Window together were just one-twentieth of Train to Busan's opening-day takings alone). The movie's had enough power and buzz to receive a limited release in UK cinemas in time for Halloween - will it crash into the country as a potent rage-fuelled runner or is it staggering over as a rotting shambler?
Seok-Woo is a workaholic Seoul salaryman married to the job and so utterly incapable of connecting with his actual family - his marriage has collapsed and despite him standing a lot on the pride of being the guardian of his young daughter Su-an, he has no real interactions with her. It's a frustrating and unwelcome intrusion into a "critical time" at work (like it's ever not a critical time) but even Seok-Woo has to concede to his ex-wife's wishes and take Su-An to live with her in Busan. Father and daughter board the early-morning express train, but while Seok-Woo is expecting it to be a quick hand-off and to be back in the office by lunch, it's unlikely that anyone is going to be getting in to work today. The zombie apocalypse is sweeping over Korea and the train pulls out of Seoul station just as the horde is pouring down onto the platforms - and when you're hurtling along at a hundred miles an hour, there truly is nowhere to run.
Train to Busan immediately stands out with some great zombies. Usually in zombie media today the only choice is whether you have 28 Days Later-style Fast Zombies or Living Dead-style Slow Zombies but Train to Busan manages to still give its own zombies a distinctive twist with the creepy, unreal way in which they impossibly twist and crack their limbs like mangled ragdolls seized in a horrific chorea. I also have to applaud the movie for how well it uses the setting - you might imagine that there's not all that much you can do with the confines of a train but they really use the space well; from the aisles to the vestibules and even the luggage racks, all these claustrophobic confines where you're perilouslyclose to the zombies' snapping jaws really ratchet up the tension and all of them are inventively employed for both avoiding and fighting the zombies... this is probably the first train in existence where you'll be positively thankful for a lack of luggage space. Indeed, the only thing that they don't do with the train is walk along the roof - I was sure it was going to happen (doesn't it always whenever there's an action sequence on a train?) and the very fact they avoided it was in itself quite an ingenious twist!
Even the best-regarded zombie films have needed a bit of Idiot Plot lube to keep the gears of the story moving, but credit to the quality of the Korean educational system that the train passengers are not more braindead than the zombies and do cotton on pretty quickly to what's happening, saving us from the reel of witless dither that usually bloats these sorts of stories. Indeed, when the time comes to fight through the zombies the characters even wrap themselves up to protect themselves from zombie bites! This is incredible - when do you ever see this happen? When people do make mistakes many of them are credible errors in high-stress situations rather than them being thrown the Idiot Ball - as a small example, when running from zombies chasing them on the train platform one survivor accidentally opens a door at the wrong end of the carriage and gets munched on. Unfortunately towards the end of the movie a few unbelievable contrivances to forcibly prolong the drama do start creeping in (Close the door. Close the door. Why aren't you closing the door? Close the door. Close the door. CLOSE THE DAMN DOOR ALREA-- oh, you've been eaten. Never mind.) and they sadly also undermine the final climax with a completely unnecessary tragedy, but overall Train to Busan sins far less than many other movies in the genre.
The zombie plague here is a rapid wildfire infection - victims turn within seconds after being bitten - and this makes for a fast-paced movie too. Train to Busan achieves some stunning large-scale set-pieces with massive charging hordes of living dead overrunning the stations and while an explosive train derailment relies on CGI it's a high-quality shot which hides the seams well. The lack of guns in a non-American setting also means that when there's no option but to go through the zombies you need to get up close and personal with their infection-rancid spittle too - the frequent close-quarters combat is thus high-stakes, threatening and gripping, the centrepiece of which is a superb sustained sequence where Seok-Woo and some allies run the gauntlet down the train carriages with monsters clogging every aisle. Train to Busan could fail in every other respect and it'd still be a pacy action movie.
Although the action is certainly the focus of Train to Busan it does have a few character moments too. Seok-Woo's distant relationship with Su-An is efficiently sketched out at the start of the movie in a short but effective scene where he buys a birthday present for her that he already bought for her previously. An old spinster's nihilistic suicide to let zombies in and condemn herself and other survivors with her to death didn't sit well with me at first as another example of forced drama but on later reflection it does make sense as a psychological breakdown. Not every moment works though - that the chief antagonist of the movie, another self-centred businessman like Seok-Woo who will throw everyone else in the path of the zombies to save his own skin was a baby who just wanted his mummy seems sappy and lame. Performances delivering these are competent but undistinguished - the cast are called on more on to run and scream more than deliver impassioned soliloquies - but Su-An's young actress pours her heart out with a compelling tearful collapse that's really impressive for her young age. It's a shame though that the music blares far too loud with Emotional Background for times when silence would be far more chilling and effecting.
That last remark reminds you that Sang-Ho Yeon is not exactly a subtle director and his method of engaging social problems in his previous aeni was to smash them with a rusty pipe (often quite literally!), but there's a lighter touch to it in Train to Busan. The theme of a selfish businessman learning about the importance of making time for his family and being kind to others is a pretty well-worn and overly familiar one that's easy to gloss over, but then as Korea suffers from similar systematic problems of 'gwarosa' overwork as Japan does from the 'karoshi' phenomenon of staff dying at their desks, maybe it does take something as extreme as a zombie apocalypse to finally beat this message into their thick skulls! It's interesting to compare Train to Busan to Yeon's last animated movie Seoul Station, released earlier this year and which could well be seen as a prologue or side-story to Train to Busan, with a zombie outbreak beginning outside the very train station that Seok-Woo is departing from at the start of the live-action movie. In Seoul Station Yeon was more trenchant in inveighing against authority as valuing its own preservation over the lives of its citizens but while there's a hint of that in Train to Busan as a minister announces on the news that everything is fine while the city is burning it's pretty much been filed down and smoothed over. I stress that I'm not criticising Train to Busan for this - had Yeon tried to wedge in his typical class-struggle soapbox then the movie would just have been derided as 'Zombie Snowpiercer' so credit to Yeon for understanding that there's a time and a place for such things. Train to Busan may even be seen as being more sympathetic to authority than Yeon's usual line - the working-class joe that has an antagonistic relationship to the "bloodsucker" Seok-Woo throughout the movie eventually makes a conciliatory gesture telling him that Su-An will understand the sacrifices Seok-Woo's making to provide for them all when she's older, and the fact that the train is heading to Busan may have particular resonance for Korean domestic audiences. It might just be the case that Busan was picked for being at the other end of the country from Seoul and thus a train ride long enough to last the movie, but Busan is not just a stop on the line; the town has history as the last redoubt and the seat of government of South Korea when it was being completely overrun by the North in the early Korean War - getting there is not only reaching the finish line, but finding a hallowed place of salvation from anarchy in the bosom of state protection.
Could it truly be a safe haven? The first hint we have of the oncoming disaster is roadkill which gets up and walks off after being run over. Now this would be a truly terrifying scenario - murderous human zombies are bad enough, but just imagine if the virus could jump species and turn everything into zombies. Zombie dogs, zombie birds, even zombie flies seeking out and turning anything and everything in reach. There'd truly be no defence and the situation would be utterly hopeless. As incredibly apocalyptic as such a scenario is, it's curiously never really been grappled in zombie movies - the only one I recall considering it is the schlocky B-Movie Zombeaver, of all things! Despite bringing it up the notion of animal zombies is never mentioned again outside the opening scene of Train to Busan. It's a bit of a shame, but I have to stress that it's only a minor niggle and the movie is plenty packed as it is without needing to cram a whole zombie ecosystem as well. Maybe the truck could have been a person who came back to unlife while the driver was running back for a phone to call for help.
The ending I feel is something that will split opinion, and I had a bit of a spirited argument with other reviewers after the screening over it. Others may see it as a completing fulfilment of the need to live for others - I saw it as the movie chickening out like how 28 Days Later removed its Bad End from cinemas. It will certainly leave an impression though, and I advise that you see the movie so you can decide for yourself as it won't be any hardship to sit through the movie preceding it. Train to Busan is an excellently-produced horror-thriller with constant tension and terror and diverse, inventive action sequences that will make it an exhilarating and satisfying option for a night out this Halloween.
Audio in Korean with English subtitles. On limited release in UK cinemas from 28th October 2016 with showings in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London. Tickets bookable via Odeon Cinemas and Cineworld.
Robert's life is one regularly on the move, but be it up hill or down dale giant robots and cute girls are a constant comfort - limited only by how many manga you can stuff into a bursting rucksack.
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