EXPECTATIONS: A fantastic blockbuster that lives up to its hype.
REVIEW: Zombie stories have always been a guilty pleasure of mine. No matter how a zombie gets disposed of, it will always make me break out a smile. But lately, zombie films haven’t been anything notable and have been treated poorly as more of an entry point for other genres than actually being zombie films i.e. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Zombeavers and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. There have been more successful attempts to break the zombie mold like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and Miss Zombie, but the main reason those films succeed is because they never forget that they are true zombie films, regardless of what genre they aspire to be. So when you have a zombie film from Korea (which is rarer than you think) directed by an acclaimed director who has only done animation projects, your anticipation tends to slightly go up a little bit. So will the film excite and thrill like the best zombie films do or will it end up drowning in the pool of the undead?
Gong Yoo stars as Seok-woo, a fund manager who is unfortunately a workaholic, much to the detriment of his marriage and his relationship with his daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-an). On the night before Soo-an’s birthday, Soo-an insists on seeing her mother for her birthday. Feeling obligated to do so, Seok-woo has no other choice but to take her to Busan. Early the next morning, they board the KTX train for Busan at Seoul Station. Before the train leaves the station, a stowaway woman (special appearance by Shim Eun-kyung) jumps onto the train and starts attacking people, causing them to become infected. Struggling to work together as a team, the passengers, including Seok-woo and Soo-an, have to settle their differences in order to survive and make it to their destination of Busan.
Animation directors turning to live-action films have been a successful trend, with filmmakers like Tim Burton, Ari Folman and Brad Bird, and fortunately director Yeon Sang-ho follows the norm. His visual eye for detail has not lost a beat and he provides the best of thrills and scares that one could ask for in a zombie film. Yeon really takes advantage of the train as it provides a strong sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings, ramping up the tension as the film relentlessly zips along. The aspect ratio of 1:85.1 (as opposed to 2.35:1) certainly adds to the cramped feel. The subversion of zombie genre cliches is a welcome change of pace, like how Gong Yoo’s character isn’t really the heroic everyman he appears to be or the use of the pregnant woman trope, played by Jung Yu-mi. Even the zombies are a bit different from the norm and that is due to their movement. Although they run as if death is an energy drink to be quenched, when they move on the train, they contort their bodies, giving them a haunting movement that reminded me of the lady in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror film, Pulse (Kairo). Even some of the potentially tragic moments are laced with a sliver of humour, like a particular phone call to a loved one that ends with a criticism of a particular character.
What is also noticeable about Yang Sang-ho’s foray to live-action is that his cruel worldview has dampened a bit, which may disappoint Yang’s ardent followers. First of all, most of the characters here are actually likable, which is a clear contrast compared to his characters in his previous films, as they are usually cruel, sadistic and even misogynistic. Although there is a human antagonist played by Kim Eui-sang, he isn’t really as cruel as those characters, but Eui-sang still gives it his all to make his character audiences will truly love to hate as well as adding a sense of empathy in the final act. There’s even a message that if mankind unites together, there is an assurance of survival. And as the train acts as a microcosm of society, social statuses are conveyed metaphorically between the two groups of the passengers, which gives the film a hint of social commentary similar to Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi blockbuster, Snowpiercer. The likability of the characters comes from director Yeon’s insistence for character moments. Although the characters aren’t three-dimensional, the sketches are outlined efficiently and distinctly enough for the audience to care what happens to them.
It certainly helps that we have a talented cast that makes the two-dimensional characters become more substantial than the script would ever allow. Gong Yoo gives a great and understated performance as Seok-woo, the conflicted everyman whose survival instincts will polarize some, yet those choices makes the character painfully real and Gong sells it. Jung Yu-mi provides some comic relief and dramatic clout as Sung-kyu while Choi Woo-sik and Ahn So-hee are likable enough as the young lovebirds who can’t catch a break with their love for one another.
But the standouts are Ma Dong-seok and Kim Soo-an. Being an all-round badass on-screen as well as off (He was a personal trainer for mixed martial artists!), he had the best character in the film. Having excellent comedic chops, charisma and a tough presence, he helps the film take flight whenever he shows up. It is also a nice change of pace for him, since he usually plays villains, particularly of the scene-chewery kind, similar to the zombies. As for Kim, she provides a fantastic performance for a child actress. Never appearing precocious for audience sympathy, she has a great father-daughter chemistry with Gong and shows maturity beyond her years that makes her character’s decisions understandable and even relatable.
As for flaws including those stated above, the ending tends to drag a little bit and can be a bit too sappy for Western tastes. But to be honest, it actually is a bit lighter on the sentimentality compared to other Korean films. And those expecting gallons of blood and gore will come out a bit disappointed, since it is quite tame in that department.
But what it lacks in gore, it makes up with frenetic energy and tension, and Train to Busan is a superior zombie entry with great performances and assured direction that proves that there is life to the over-saturated genre.
Assured direction from director Yeon Sang-ho
Subversion of zombie tropes
Relentless pacing, tension and thrills
Efficient storytelling/character details
Ending can be a bit sappy and overlong
Those accustomed to director Yeon’s worldview will be a bit disappointed
Cast: Gong Yoo, Kim Soo-an, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Eui-sung, Choi Woo-sik, An So-hee, Shim Eun-kyung
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Screenwriters: Park Joo-suk, Yeon Sang-ho