Train to Busan Review

Already a runaway box office success domestically in South Korea, Train To Busan is exactly the kind of blockbuster that gives blockbusters a good name, with entertaining action, effective characterisation and enough smart ideas to chew on for those looking for a little more from their big budget spectacles.

Train To Busan opens with an amusing sequence in which a truck driver enters a quarantined zone – the recent MERS outbreak in South Korea seems to be a clear influence – and through carelessness runs over a deer. Muttering to himself that today is a shitty day – it’s about to get a lot worse – he abandons the bloodied and broken deer on the road. As we hear him accelerate off into the distance the deer begins to spring to life through a tortured, convulsing action that will soon become very familiar. The white-eyed undead deer looks square into the camera, before the scene smashes to black and the title appears.

This slightly tongue-in-cheek and somewhat gory opening provides a brilliant tone setter for what we should expect in Train To Busan. And it is the first in a number of elegantly simple set-ups in the film’s first half an hour that introduce the primary drama, principal characters and a number of highly interesting secondary characters.

The two main characters in Train To Busan are father and daughter, Seok-Woo (Yoo Gong) and Su-an (Soo-an Kim), who are travelling on the titular train for Su-an’s birthday. Seok-Woo is an inattentive father and when we first meet him he’s also generally pretty awful. He’s a successful fund manager who refers to people as lemmings and writer/director Yeon Sang-ho makes it clear from the off that Seok-Woo is selfish and values the bottom line over anything else. His advice to Su-an when things start to get dangerous is to only worry about herself, as that’s the most important thing, even if it’s at the expense of other people’s lives. The way in which his character learns to be a better person and his inevitable redemption is something that perhaps gets a little too schmaltzy and overplayed in the final act of the film, but Sang-ho also doesn’t shy away from making tough moves with this character that big budget Hollywood movies frequently won’t go near.

This is all part of a wider theme too, with Train To Busan playing very much as a paean to looking out for your fellow man, or woman. There is a class deconstruction and critique of the corrupting influence of capitalism at the heart of Train To Busan that Seok-Woo’s character arc plays into, but which can also be seen throughout the film in a number of subtle and not too subtle ways. For instance, the first infected person – the “zombie” outbreak in Train To Busan is an infection and one that leads to the undead being super-charged – to enter the KTX train to Busan is a young girl, but the staff on the train are far more concerned with a homeless man who has locked himself in the toilet. He, it transpires, has not only already figured out what’s going on but also shows a great deal of ingenuity at one point in getting away from a zombie attack.

This moment also effectively sets up a revelation about the zombies that helps our main characters avoid them on a number of occasions and provides an interesting hook for upping the suspense in a number of scenes. Train To Busan is full of edge-of-your-seat tension, but these moments are punctuation points in a thrilling and highly entertaining film that barrels along at a hell of a pace.

The frequent action in Train To Busan is staged, shot and edited with a great deal of skill. Yeon Sang-ho and cinematographer Hyung-deok Lee – who also shot the stylish remake of The Housemaid – find a large number of interesting ways to frame the action in the tight confines of the KTX train on which our characters find themselves, with great use being made of various spaces within the train. Toilets and vestibules become important safe-havens, for instance, and a late use of the luggage racks is absolutely inspired.

The action often comes thick and fast too, with masses of zombies attacking with speed and ferocity. The special effects are, for the most part, suitably grisly and successfully applied, but as the action ramps up in the film’s last half – and boy does it ramp up – the larger-scale effects are not quite as accomplished and effectively used. Thankfully this doesn’t detract too much from the large-scale spectacle on screen.

Taking its cues more from the big budget action of the likes of World War Z – a film it more than surpasses in quality – than other more horror-focused zombie flicks, Train To Busan is a thrilling, intelligent and occasionally even quite moving film that deserves to be as big a hit in the West as it has been throughout Asia.

This review was originally posted at MyMBuzz.

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