Yeon Sang-ho’s (The King of Pigs) critically hailed zombie horror thriller, Train to Busan, is returning to theaters in the US this weekend. For those unfamiliar with the film, it smashed box office records in Korea and is one of the best reviewed horror films of 2016 with a 96% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. After eagerly awaiting an opportunity to screen it since its release in July, I have finally had a chance to see what all the hype is about.
The film focuses on Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a work-o-holic fund manager who barely has time for his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an), a girl who unfortunately a child of divorced parents. For her birthday, all she wants to do is visit her mother in Busan. Eventually, Seok-woo reluctantly agrees to allow her to go and personally takes her on the train to her mother.
After they depart from Seoul, violence erupts in cities around the country with many believing they are riots. As communication begins to get severed, the passengers soon discover that these aren’t riots, but that a virus has actually turned people into vicious zombies and the train is quickly being overrun by them.
With a new lease on life, Seok-woo is determined to keep his daughter safe and, to do so, he must work with a ragtag group of passengers, including a high school baseball player, a pregnant lady and her brash, strong husband Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), to keep the zombies at bay and isolated from them until they get to Busan.
Train to Busan is Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action film and he does a magnificent job bringing what could be a cookie-cutter zombie film into the realm of awesome storytelling and exciting cinema. It’s the type of movie you think will just be a run of the mill zombie flick, but by the end all you can do is say to yourself, “damn, that was pretty good.” Suffice to say, this isn’t just zombies on a train.
What separates the movie from your typical Hollywood zombie fare is that there is an emotional core to it as well as a parallel to Korean class wars. The zombies are there, and are certainly the best part, but the emotional element and watching the characters evolve was refreshing. More so, seeing how certain people acted because of their social status was interesting and this movie showed how none of that matters in life or death situations. I felt that this connection to Korean society is what elevated it further while the emotional part drove much of the dialogue.
So how are the zombies? They’re intense, aggressive and surprisingly interesting. They make you never want to look away from the screen. They are fast, vicious, they pile on each other like hordes typically do, but they can’t see in the dark, giving them one weakness that can be exploited carefully. Depending on the extent of their bite or how many times someone’s been bitten, that is what determines how quickly you turn. I have to give a hand to the people that played the zombies because they were launching themselves over train seats, through doors, under chairs, and going balls to the wall to make the movie as intense as it could be. It was really terrific and that, coupled with the effects, made the movie such a joy to watch.
One other aspect I liked was that there were no guns or knives on the train. These people basically had bats to protect themselves and that was it. How many zombie movies have you seen where heavy machinery wasn’t used or people didn’t have access to sharp objects? This one element is what really helps ramp up the tension because it makes it incredibly difficult to kill these zombies unless you snap their necks, which no one wants to try and do.
As far as negatives, the acting and dialogue can occasionally be laughable and the film is a little long, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t impact the film in the slightest. Every time I thought the film was going to lose its footing and get cheesy, it does a 180 and corrects its course, resulting in me squeezing my hands tighter as the situation for the passengers continued to get direr. It’s fun to watch all the chaos unfold, as characters make bad decisions, shockingly smart ones at times, and see who would be the selfish one when it came down to kill or be killed situations.
Overall, Train to Busan lived up to the hype. It’s an incredibly fun zombie flick that hits all the right notes while also bringing some originality and much-needed twists on the genre. Isolated spaces, no effective weapons, and a crew of mostly incompetent people provide for a combination that’s perfect for horror film fans to watch and brutal for the characters in the film. If you have a chance to check it out this weekend, get your ass into the theater because it’s 100% worth it.