Film Review: Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho)

by Nick Arno

After watching this film as the second installment at the Alamo Drafthouse “Dismember the Alamo” this year, it is clear that South Korean cinema has never disappointed when it comes to astonishing its audiences with remarkable emotion and thrilling terror, and it has done so once again with Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan, a modern zombie flick with a twist. This roller coaster of a film reigns true to the modern genre of the undead, echoing visual effects from films such as 28 Days Later and World War Z. Even though the sub-genre is still ever present in the film, it still seems to reinvent the entire idea of an apocalyptic zombie thriller. With gentle but heart-wrenching character development throughout, Train to Busan is always on par with the themes it was made to portray.

The film’s writer/director Sang-ho Yeon is no stranger to the zombie trade, having made several animated movies including Seoul Station, which Train to Busan is the sequel to. His other notable works include The King of Pigs (2011) and The Fake (2013).

The characters in the film are very different from the normal archetypes in the classic zombie movie. They are far more realized and relatable. The character that is followed most in the film, Seok Woo (Yoo Gong: The Age of Shadows, Silenced), is a property manager living Seoul, who reluctantly attempts to keep his family together while struggling with his ex-wife in Busan and his young daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim: Gyeongju, Mad Sad Bad). He is a forceful and somewhat lazy worker who lives life in a trance of self-reliance, which ends up becoming his greatest weakness.

 Seok Woo and his daughter board a train in Seoul on the morning of Soo-an’s birthday to bring her to her mother in Busan, along with several other passengers who don’t remain strangers for long. Until this point, there have only been subtle clues to the tragedy that is about to occur in South Korea, and the film’s ominous authority to the subject is highly unique. As the train is about to depart, a young woman runs onto the train without the knowledge of the conductor, and the real terror begins.

Almost the entirety of the movie takes place inside the cars of the train, relating to the story of another South Korean feature Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2013). The suspense in the film is nothing short of brilliant, as the infected passengers aboard the train begin to devour and in turn infect several other passengers, spreading this mysterious disease around the train. The main character and his daughter bond with their surviving brethren, and fight consistently to stay alive while having minimal to no contact with outside world. They are trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare, and the unsettling but highly effective pacing of the film gives a new meaning to the word “horror.”

The themes portrayed in this film are intricately represented in the pinpoint action and no-holds-barred dialogue that can be found in many Korean films, however, the realism of the situation gives new light to how audiences watch the film. The characters experience the crushing blow of selfishness clashing with their need to survive, which the main character is the prime example of. Although he struggles with his emotional desires, his character goes through a radical change, which he is helped along the way by the strong husband of a pregnant woman (Dong-seok Ma and Yu-mi Jeong). He is a representation of the father Seok Woo always wanted to be, but was pushed aside by his selfish desire for power. There is no change however for the man who seems to be the antagonist of the film, Yong-Suk (Eui-sung Kim), the COO of another commercial train line, who becomes paranoid and attempts to manipulate the conductor and crew to his own selfish ends. 

Another trope of Korean cinema that seems to appear in this film as well is the battle between the government and the people. The Host (Joon-Ho Bong, 2006) is another good example of this. Throughout this film, the government of South Korea continually attempts to take control of the situation in a variety of ways that end up making everything worse. Their tactics seem to only be for the benefit of saving “necessary” lives, and put the lives of the people on the train in complete and utter danger. Even though this theme seems to re-occur in the cultural aspect of these movies, it adds a good amount of tension to the film, and helps moves the story along, as well as the action.

Although the infected creatures in this film resemble those of the recent past, they are represented in a far more creative way that is both terrifying and somewhat realistic. There are moments when the survivors continue to learn more about how to fight their way through the hordes of zombies, and it makes the way the characters handle themselves increasingly more relevant to the reasons why they are trapped.

There are several smaller story arcs in the film, including an older woman and her sister, whose relationship develops in an emotional and almost comical manner. There is also a high school baseball team who ventures on the train, along with a boy whose female love interest becomes his primary need for survival.

There are a few moments in the film that seem to be close to the end, however the final showdown is intensely moving and wildly suspenseful. The close of the film is an incredible sight to behold, and brings the realism of the story to a fantastically satisfying end. Possibly the most satisfying is the growth that unfolds within the relationship of the main character and his daughter, which comes to a dramatic and emotional climax. No one will regret seeing this film, unless they are prone to suspense-induced anxiety.