Train to Busan:
All Aboard the Zombie Express!

Yeon Sang-Ho
Director / Writer

Movie Review
Train to Busan: An Illuminating Journey



Directed by: Yeon Sang-Ho

Written by: Park Joo-Suk, Yeon Sang-Ho


Acclaimed South Korean animation director Yeon Sang-Ho launches his first live-action project in the form of Train to Busan – a more philosophical take on the burgeoning zombie genre. Featuring an ensemble cast, Train to Busan is intended as a sequel to the animated Seoul Station, and, unlike its predecessor, has successfully reached a global audience.

The plot is simple enough: Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo), a Seoul-based fund manager, is almost immediately painted as the work-obsessed Wall Street stereotype. In his pursuit for success, Seok-Woo neglects his young daughter, Soo-An (Kim Soo-Ahn), who clearly longs for his affection. Kim Soo-Ahn portrays her character’s haunting loneliness with a striking grace that one would expect of a much older performer.

Popular drama actor Gong Yoo is rather wooden in his performance, and although this approach is appropriate in the first half of the film, his unreceptive eyes and lack of emotional depth stick out unfavourably during the action sequences and more poignant third act.  Nonetheless, writers Park Joo-Suk and Yeon Sang-Ho have sewn together an exciting screenplay that leads into the more violent scenes rather skillfully.

On the night before her birthday, Soo-An expresses her longing to see her mother in Busan. After some arguing and much pleading, Seok-Woo finally agrees to accompany his daughter on a train from Seoul to Busan, hoping to be back in his plush office by lunchtime.

While viewers witness Seok-Woo’s almost hilarious parental failures, the backdrop persists with a ringing urgency: a reverberating hint at imminent danger that grows louder and louder with each scene. TV news snippets of ‘out of control protestors’ and a chain of shrieking ambulances zooming by successfully contrast against the silent awkwardness between Seok-Woo and his daughter. By the time little Soo-An finally climbs aboard the fated train to Busan the next morning, audiences are left with cleverly whetted appetites, eagerly awaiting the inevitable flesh-eating chaos that will follow.

Teaming up with Park and Yeon, cinematographer Lee Hyung-Duk handles each take with undeniable flair, and the trio take their time to introduce supporting characters. As Seok-Woo and Soo-An advance toward their seats, the camera pans to follow some colourful yet stereotypical personalities onboard the high-speed KTX. Two elderly sisters, In-Gil (Ye Soo-Jung) and Jong-Gil (Park Myung-Shin) bicker amusingly, while Sang-Hwa (the indomitable Ma Dong-Seok, arguably the real hero of this tale) cautiously tends to Sung-Gyeong (Jung Yu-Mi), his heavily pregnant wife. In another cabin, baseball player Young-Gook (Choi Woo-Sik) is stubbornly pursued by cheerleader Jin-Hee (ex-Wonder Girl Ahn So-Hee), and a panic-stricken homeless man (Choi Gwi-Hwa) hides in a darkened corner with wide, horrified eyes, whispering: “They’re all dead.”

Writers Park and Yeon handle the film’s pacing with experienced sophistication, and one can almost sense the delicate brilliance of chess masters cleverly arranging their pieces. Aside from the obvious warning signs suggesting a zombie outbreak, Train to Busan is also rife with social and political commentary. The film openly references the Korean government’s MERS virus fiasco, while also consistently driving home the ‘class discrimination’ motif, both of which are held together by the sturdy groundwork of some very deftly staged action and charming one-liners.

Once the inevitable ‘zombies on a train’ disaster finally strikes, Train to Busan is a vicious, harrowing, and beautifully relentless sequence of gritty action (Yeon’s emphasis on physical reality is a joy to watch), convincing zombification (hair and makeup: Lee Eun-Ju; costume design: Rim Seung-Hee; visual effects: Jung Hwang-Su), smooth editing (Yang Jin-Mo), and sometimes irksome music (Jang Young-Gyu can’t seem to resist exercising the infernal Inception bass note). Zombie territory practically guarantees some cringeworthy clichés, so witnessing a pregnant woman outrun zombies, jump onto moving trains and wriggle through tight spaces shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

Then again, Train to Busan is not your conventional zombie apocalypse film. With some incredibly shallow Hollywood blockbusters that have set a pitiful benchmark for modern horror films, more often than not, patrons of this genre have become unconcerned and undemanding in terms of an actual story or nuanced character development – which is why those who are unfamiliar with Yeon’s previous work will find themselves in for a delightful surprise.

Train to Busan’s lack of focus on splatter and gore contradicts its ‘horror film’ status, and its satisfactorily choreographed fight scenes aren’t enough to make it an action-driven film. Instead, it is Yeon’s persistent focus on ethics and social mores that define its core. In fact, the film’s vilest villain isn’t a zombie at all, but an incredibly self-serving corporate executive named Yong-Suk (Kim Eui-Sung).

On the other hand, it is also this keen persistence at shedding light on societal shortcomings that will likely cause some to roll their eyes. There is a point in the film where Soo-An’s innocent outrage at her father’s lack of morals becomes utterly exhausting, though later scenes depicting some heartbreaking prejudice will certainly alert Indian viewers to similarly glaring truths within our own nation. And so, while the film’s failure to explain any of the science behind this viral outbreak will probably displease some moviegoers, its stunning cinematography and creative use of production sets grant it a well-earned spot among one of the best zombie flicks of this decade.

And yes, while there are certainly some similarities to Brad Pitt’s dreadfully executed World War Z and Bong Joon-Ho’s thrilling Snowpiercer, both of which were adapted from novels, it is important to note that Train to Busan is an original work that links thematically to Yeon’s own Seoul Station. Not only do Yeon and Park drum up fully realised characters amidst a horrific zombie outbreak, but they have also successfully birthed a beating emotional core that movies in this genre – particularly within present-day Hollywood – have failed at time and again.

Films like these often have to justify their existence: why does the world need yet another zombie flick? With Train to Busan, the answer becomes apparent, for this movie isn’t just another ‘zombie film’ – it is a visual master’s live-action commentary on humanity’s will to survive amidst social polarization and political discord, guaranteeing an entertaining yet illuminating journey that both casual and hardcore moviegoers must, in this reviewer’s opinion, absolutely jump aboard.


   Tina Mohandas

Tina Mohandas is a songwriter, musician, tattoo artist, vintage motorcycle collector, and animal rights activist. Currently writing her debut science fantasy novel, she is also the co-founder of the non-profit Bikerhood India initiative, and hopes one day to free every caged animal in the world.

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