train_to_busan_2Year: 2016
Director(s): Yeon Sang-ho
Writer(s): Yeon Sang-ho
Region of Origin: South Korea
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: Unrated
Color, 118 mins

Synopsis: While a zombie-virus breaks out in South Korea, passengers struggle to survive on a train going from Seoul to Busan. (Source)

Fight or flight, us or them. Who are at our wit’s end, when we’re stuck between impossible choices and our own personal well being? Herein lies the struggle that anchors Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan. With its inventive spin on the zombie apocalypse, Yeon’s film is an express train to hell, a perfectly calibrated thrill ride that never lets up and never looks back. Like Snowpiercer before it, Yeon uses his closed setting to explore class, entitlement and a motley crew of unlikely heroes, but this time puts an emphasis on the split-second decisions which determine self-preservation and self-sacrifice. Telling his intimate story amidst an epic backdrop, the film is suitable for veteran gorehounds, but replete with a rare kind of depth, blending massive blockbuster scale with moral complexity.

In the aftermath of a failed marriage, Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is a workaholic fund manager in Seoul, ruthlessly thriving in business but a terrible father. He continually brushes his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) aside, ignoring her and her mother to remain in a perpetual state of distraction. That changes when Su-an’s only birthday wish is to visit her mother in Busan. Hesitant at first, Seok-woo decides to accompany Su-an on the trip, deciding that it may be time for him to confront the family he’s failed for so long. What should’ve been a quick, one hour jaunt, however, turns into a fight for survival, after a viral outbreak rips through the city and onto their train, turning unsuspecting victims into rabid creatures who thirst on human flesh. It’s here where Seok-woo, Su-an and a motley crew of survivors will use every resource to stay alive, each finding out what it really takes to survive. 

train_to_busan_1After briefly taking time to introduce us to the train’s disparate passengers, its layout and the overarching threat, the film reaches maximum speed and never lets up. From here on out, nothing is wasted, with action spilling from car to car, overhead compartments and vestibules, as makeshift weapons (like a baseball team’s bats) and whatever can be found turn in to savage devices of self defense. The trick of it all, however, is that each bloody encounter is also a morality test that progressively raises the stakes. Amidst the spectacle and pandemonium, the focus remains on the humanity that hangs in the balance. Yeon’s biggest asset turns out to be how he uses our intrinsic survival instincts as the film’s biggest challenge, presenting our compassion or selfish nature as a force more powerful than the film’s undead. 

Despite the focus on humanity, Yeon doesn’t skimp when it comes to his zombies. The carnage and mayhem here is huge, with the undead making their moves mostly as a horde, coming together to snake through their opposition, break through glass and overwhelm their prey. Lee Hyung-deok’s camera work whips in and out of the action, as bodies pile on top of each other, blood sprays and limbs are torn apart. The action is similar to what we saw in World War Z, but much more aggressive and smarter. This technique propels an overall rhythm that splits Yeon’s symphony of chaos into movements, allowing each train car to present its own unique challenge and making for a claustrophobic battlefield that continually transforms.

train_to_busan_4The performances are given just as much love as the mayhem. As the film’s pivot point, Yoo Gong’s Seok-woo’s immerses us into the film’s unforgiving quandary. Though we initially despise what he stands for, he’s undeniably relatable, underlying the film’s madness with an emotional authenticity. As his daughter, Su-an, Kim Su-an is the heart of the film, unafraid to put her father in check for his selfishness and giving the story a graceful presence. She has a maturity that grounds the film with some of its most intense moments, and together, the duo are the key to everything, with her innocence calling out the the dog-eat-dog nature of our society. Ma Dong-seok’s Sang-hwa and Jung Yu-mi’s Sung-kyung play a kind couple expecting a child, a nice contrast to Yoo and Su-an who are from a lower end of the economic ladder, yet carry with them a hope and integrity that shines through the darkness. Ma in particular, a man driven to protect his future child and wife is incredible to watch, with an unassuming nature that gives way to an aggressive, physical presence. He’s also pretty funny at times. Choi Woo-sik and An So-hee add more texture to the unwitting heroes, while Kim Eui-sung plays a corrupt corporate executive who only cares about himself. If there’s a through line within these performances, it’s that we truly care about these characters, most of whom are trying to do right. 

Zombies may be ubiquitous, but every once in a while we get a film like Train to Busan. Yeon understands the metaphorical heft behind his story and its global threat, using the undead as a dark mirror to our humanity and framing them within a savage story that chooses to believe in hope. Exploring the extremes of human nature, the film eventually leaves us with the idea that ignorance and apathy are not bliss, especially when it comes to the distant problems left for our children to inherit. Blending horror, action, humor and social sensitivity, Yeon’s latest is high concept entertainment with soul and a purpose, a trip that, indeed, you can’t and shouldn’t miss.

SG