Train To Busan (Cert 15)

1 Disc (Distributor: Studiocanal) Running Time: 118 minutes approx.

Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the delay but the highest grossing film at the Korean box office of 2016 has finally arrived on MIB’s Instant Headache.

Having made his name with uncompromising animated films such as King Of Pigs, Yeon Sang-Ho switches to the live action medium for this record breaking zombie movie, which, having conquering most of Asia, has made victims in the west too.

Fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is so busy with work he misses the musical recital of his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) straining their relationship further since it is also her birthday. Asking how he can make it up to her, Su-an asks Seok-Woo to take her to visit her mother in Busan, which he grudgingly agrees to. The next day they board a high-speed KTX train from Seoul to Busan.

Just before the train departs, a young woman sneaks onboard undetected, clearly the worse for wear because of the huge bite mark on her leg. When a female train attendant finds her and tries to help, the girl turns feral and attacks the attendant, turning her into the same zombified creature she has now become. Both infected ladies go on the rampage and soon the train is overtaken by flesh eating passengers.

It would be too easy to label this Snowpiercer Of The Undead as the parallels are relatively obvious, although Yeon’s renowned trenchant social commentary isn’t as blatant as in his other films, or the aforementioned 2014 opus. That said it is a keen plot point to ensure drama levels are kept high, not just through the nerve shredding zombie chases but also in exploring the selfishness of people in a crisis.

Compared to his previous works, Yeon has unashamedly courted mainstream audience with Train To Busan – a demonstrably validated move – right down to the details of the script, co-written with Park Joo-Suk. It is signposted early on who are the key players and the ones almost assuredly destined to make it to the end credit in one piece, whilst the tropes are as familiar as a five year old pair of underpants.

Seok-Woo is the workaholic divorced father unaware of what his daughter likes or is interested in while Su-an is young be amazingly intelligent and righteous for someone yet to reach double figures in life. Onboard the train is no nonsense working class husband Sang-Hwa (Ma Dong-Seok) and his pregnant wife Sung-Gyeong (Jung Yu-Mi), a high school baseball team with cute cheerleader Jin-Hee (Ahn So-Hee), and brash, self important CEO Yong-Suk (Kim Eui-Sung).

No new ground broken here but it makes the story easy to follow and to engage with the characters. The only person who is truly ambiguous and whose role isn’t fully explained is a homeless stowaway (Shim Eun-Kyung), making his debut as a quivering wreck inside a train toilet mumbling “They’re all dead” to himself.

It should be explained that at the start of the film a truck driver passes through a quarantined zone due to a bio-chemical leak which he scoffs at, running over a deer, which suddenly leaps back to life with scary whited out eyes. Later when the infected becomes zombified this is exactly what happens to them; they may crave human flesh but they are not your run-of-the-mill stumbling undead but sprightly and relentless predators.

Serving as much a threat to the surviving passengers as the zombies themselves is the obnoxious, bullying Yong-Suk who seems to think his lofty business status and inflated ego affords him preferential treatment and de facto leadership status. By shouting the loudest and riling up the weaker passengers, Yong-Suk is equally responsible for many unnecessary deaths as if he was a flesh eater himself.

Yeon uses this scenario as a way to delineate his caustic view of Korean society, while at the opposite end of the ego spectrum is Su-an who willingly gives up her seat for the elderly and berates her own father for only caring about himself. Naturally, while Seok-woo takes his daughter’s words to heart and becomes the nominal hero of this piece, Yong-Suk is selfish and demanding to the end.

Instead of feeling as if we are being bludgeoned by a didactic lesson of social ethics and mistrust of a lopsided caste system, Yeon is clever enough to twist this into an subtle but no less astute way to engender sympathy and concern for the embattled survivors outside of Yong-Suk’s arrogant purview.

This reaches its apogee in the second act when the living are woefully outnumbered and at least two featured players are sentenced to death because of Yong-Suk’s action, having endured tremendous hardships to reach the safe haven of the last train carriage. Initially the train setting feels contrived for a zombie outbreak but Yeon is able to exploit and integrate both its positives and negatives as an isolated location to great effect.

While the main cast are all suitably committed to their roles, with regular bad guy Ma Dong-Seok playing against type as brawny but caring husband Sang-Hwa, and youngster Kim Su-an adding herself to the list of amazing junior actors in Korean cinema, the real stars of this film are the zombies.

Made up of largely of rank and file extras and stuntmen their performances are the real key to the whole film, in the way they twist and contort their bodies to the way they remain consistent in being squashed up against windows and doors whilst in the pursuit of human flesh. There is even room for nuance in scenes where the protagonists discover the zombies react to light and rely on the darkness to escape.

It is easy to see why Train To Busan caught the imagination of the Korean public, with its blockbuster set pieces, straight storytelling and eschewing of CGI to make the threat of the undead feel very real. So, if you’ll excuse the pun, hop on board and enjoy this  gore fest of a thrill ride.

 

Extras:

2.0 Stereo LPCM

5.1 DTS HD Master Audio

The Making Of Train To Busan

Sneak Peek Of Seoul Station

Seoul Station Trailer

 

Rating – ****  ½ 

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