Review: Train to Busan (부산행)

Train to Busan poster courtesy of Well Go USA
Courtesy of Well Go USA

I like zombie films and while I haven’t seen that many Korean zombie films as they aren’t a particularly popular genre, what I had seen simply whet my appetite for more. Add to the mix that director Yeon Sang Ho’s (연상호) previous animated films were complex and dark so I was intrigued about how his first live action film would be, especially when the topic was as fun as zombies. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that it stars Gong Yu (공유) or that it premiered at Cannes.

Yeah, I had high expectations for Train to Busan (부산행). And it didn’t disappoint!

Synopsis

Seok-Woo is a work-obsessed, slightly absentee divorced father who’s young daughter, Soo-An, only wants one thing for her birthday – to visit her mother in Busan. Despite arguing that he’s too busy to take her and she’s too young to go on her own, he quickly acquiesces and off they go to the train station. They board the KTX to Busan just as all hell breaks loose in Seoul. Unfortunately, they aren’t the only ones to catch the train, nor do they escape the growing terror, as one late passenger exhibits signs of a strange illness shortly after the train leaves Seoul. Will they make it to Busan? Will anyone survive?

My Thoughts

The film set the tone early with the opening scene. From the checkpoint to the farmer hitting the deer – wow, was that creepy and oddly worse than if it was a person – it’s obvious that this is going to be a film that will surprise you at times but also keep many of the better elements of zombie films. Add in a dose – although not as much as the director’s previous animated films – of social commentary, lots of action, a quick pace, and characters you are going to like (but some of whom will probably get killed, it is a zombie film after all), and Train to Busan is a zombie flick you’re going to want to watch and tell your friends about. I certainly have.

And if you’re like me, your emotions will get involved. Starting from the call from Seok-Woo’s mother not long after the world starts going crazy, there were lots of tear-inducing scenes. I’m not even going to mention the last 15 minutes or so except to say, bring tissues! The shadow suicide was so emotional and well done. *tears*

One of my favourite elements of the film was the variety of reactions by the people on the train. There were people of all ages and while many just succumbed in a kind of stupor (because come on, who expects flesh-eating zombies to attack you on the KTX), some fought back and showed either real heroism or blatant evil. And some reacted in ways you just can’t anticipate – I’m looking at you old woman. But the real treasure of the film – other than Seok-Woo’s young daughter, Soo-An, who was played magnificently by Kim Soo-Ahn (김수안) – was that the main character, Seok-Woo, wasn’t perfect. I enjoyed watching a film where the main character wasn’t the hero or an anti-hero but rather an ordinary guy who’s mostly selfish and just wants to protect his daughter. He was a bit of a shit but nonetheless, real.

In fact, it was a good showcase of good, evil and all the gray areas in between of human behaviour. From the evil of the COO – man, was he someone I wanted to die – to the self-sacrificing valour of Sang-Hwa, there were all kinds of reactions to the zombies. And, if one looks a little deeper, we can see how many people don’t react or act from pure good or evil but rather from somewhere in the middle, and their actions are often influenced – to greater or lesser degrees – by those around them and are fluid.

But enough about the people, let’s talk about the zombies, because you can’t have a good zombie flick without them. I have to say, kudos to the actors who turned zombie in the film. It always looked brutal and frightening. They were quick, mindless yet could occasionally work together – there’s one zombie wave that will stick in your mind for a while afterwards. Although, despite how it can be scary when they attack, the film veers more towards action than horror.

Okay, I wasn’t going to go there because I see more comparison 28 Days Later, but as I was leaving the theatre I overheard someone mention Snowpiercer. Other than them both being set on a train (and they certainly aren’t the only films to be), I didn’t really see it. Sure, there are glimpses of how different members of society are treated – paying passengers vs. the homeless guy – but it’s more subtle and not really a part of the central story. Train to Busan was just a good zombie flick, hence why I can understand someone comparing it to 28 Days Later rather than Snowpiercer. It really makes me want to see Seoul Station (서울역), an animated film by director Yeon Sang-Ho  that’s also out this summer, although not in theatres in North America, which is also a zombie flick. In fact, Yeon is more known for his animated films – The Fake (사이비) screened at TIFF in 2013 – and Train to Busan is his first live action film. But I digress.

While there was a lot I liked about the film, I’d give it 4 stars simply for the pure entertainment factor, I had a few minor issues with it. First, why was the blood on Seok-Woo’s shirt orange? It was a little distracting. The other thing that struck me was the last call from “Analyst Kim” seemed unnecessary. The cause of the zombie virus doesn’t need to be tried up that neatly in a bow. But if you’re going to give a reason, it needs to be more clear and integrated into the story, and less of an aside.

Final Thoughts

All in all, Train to Busan is a fun, action-filled zombie film you won’t want to miss. I loved the ending despite how I didn’t want certain characters to become zombies. I know it’s a zombie film and that’s going to happen but…still. You’ll cry, be entertained, perhaps jump a little at the ‘scary’ parts and leave the theatre feeling satisfied. And if you’re me, thinking about how you would react in a zombie apocalypse. Don’t laugh but I wondered how we’d stop zombies on the new subway trains in Toronto (no joke, I did wonder as there are no doors between the trains).

Have you seen Train to Busan? What did you think of it?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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