It’s almost impossible to ignore the hype surrounding Train to Busan since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. However, can it possibly live up to that build-up as well as the bold standards set by classics of South Korean genre cinema like The Host, Old Boy, and dare I say it Snowpiercer?
It starts innocuously enough. Fund managers have their lunch and pig farmers blindly scrambling for phones in truck cabs. The opening of Train to Busan is permeated with a feeling that all is not well, from the state of fund manager Seok Woo (Yoo Gong)’s marriage, his relationships with his daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim), his mother and his estranged wife and the general air that pervades the town. The audience knows well what’s coming, but director Sang-ho Yeon, in his live-action debut, expertly builds tension as the self-absorbed Seok Woo capitulates to his daughter wish to travel to Busan, to see her mother for her birthday.
All aboard who’s going aboard
Once the pair has boarded the train and the audience has been introduced to far too many characters to possibly survive a zombie movie, (including the subtly amusing Dong-seok Ma), the film picks up the pace, as it soon becomes all too evident what the passengers are sharing their carriages with.
A mix of the fast moving “infected” from 28 Days/Months Later, and the writhing walls of flesh from World War Z, Train to Busan‘s undead threat turn quickly, contort their limbs into sickening shapes and pitch themselves headlong at any uninfected passengers. After years of The Walking Dead‘s somewhat relaxed shamblers, it’s an approach that works incredibly well for the most part, with only one or two biters coming off as a little bit goofy.
Battle lines are quickly drawn as carriages surrendered to the undead keep the remaining survivors separated, but it soon becomes apparent that the real divisions are between those who have something or someone to lose, against those who are only out for themselves. Train to Busan never becomes preachy, however, as it follows the template set out by George Romero’s first Zombie flicks, burying it’s message about society under a skin of gore and terror.
Fight your way to the Front
Even if you don’t look for deeper meaning, Train To Busan is never less than entertaining. Constantly coming up with new obstacles for our protagonists, slowly revealing more about the living and the undead and even leaving the train at times. That it manages all this while only resorting to jump scares a handful of times is a probably one of the reasons it’s been receiving such high praise.
Another may be that thanks to the relatively unknown nature of the cast outside South Korea the audience can’t assume that any character is safe.
Despite what the movie tries to get you to believe, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Brad Pitt will make it through World War Z unscathed. The same goes for The Walking Dead where we’re not sure if any of the main cast is going to die (up until recently, that is) so it’s a breath of fresh air to have once again to deal with a zombie movie where anyone could be next.
That said some of the praise surrounding the film’s release might be a little overblown. Yes, it’s a great, enjoyable zombie movie. Hell, it’s an incredibly entertaining thriller that swept me right up in it and kept me engaged throughout the whole movie. That’s something of a rarity this summer, but only time and repeated viewings will tell if it can stand beside such classics of the genre like Evil Dead series, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead or even Shaun of the Dead.
Train to Busan isn’t quite a revolution in horror cinema, but it is a tremendously fun ride that will keep you guessing as to where this train is going. Or rather, how it this train going to get to Busan, and who if anyone is going to be left.
Best enjoyed with an enthusiastic audience. Well worth the price of a ticket.
Starring: Yoo Gong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Yu-mi Jeong, Eui-sung Kim, Soo-an Kim, Sohee.
Directed by: Yeon Sang-Ho
Official Site here.