Review: Train to Busan (2016)


South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho makes his live-action directorial debut with the haunting zombie siege on train film Train to Busan, which provides viewers with one of the best horror film experiences of 2016 and gives us a return to using horror as commentary on social issues and inequality. Check out our full review after the jump.


George Romero created the modern zombie film in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, a modestly budgeted film that was as much about racial inequality in the United States in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement as much as it was about flesh eating ghouls. Romero followed this up 10 years later in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead which looked at society’s relentless march towards mass consumer consumption as not much different from the need of a zombie to indiscriminately eat flash in a rather brilliant commentary on 70’s society.

In the past decade, zombie films have made a huge resurgence in the popular culture. From comics, books, TV shows and big and low budget films, the genre is more visible than ever, but finding unique and original takes has become more and more difficult in the wake of modern offerings like The Walking Dead and World War Z.

Enter Train to Busan, one of the most audacious and unique offerings in horror this year. While utilizing many modern tropes established in films like 28 Days Later, World War Z, Dawn of the Dead and Dellamorte Dellamore, Train to Busan is in many ways a throwback to the era of films like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Its a story about the importance of humanity amidst a world where a chasm is rapidly growing and dividing society; both because of socio-economic inequality and self-importance in a digital age and how this manifests as a result of a zombie virus.

The film introduces to Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo), a hedge fund manager going through a bitter divorce. His daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) is having a very difficult time with it. She loves her father but he is distracted by his work which is all-encompassing and at a crucial time. Su-an misses her mother desperately and wants to visit her in the city of Busan on her birthday. Seok-Woo tries to cheer Su-an with a Wii as a birthday gift but is shocked to realize he gave her the exact same present on Children’s Day months earlier. Seok-Woo reluctantly agrees to accompany Su-an to the Busan on a one hour train ride even as we see signs that all is not well in South Korea as violent protests and fights are breaking out and an indigent man forces himself on the train to the protests of the many well off passengers. His presence is such an affront to a suited business man (Kim Yool-ho) that no one notices when an infected girl suffering from seizures darts onto the train to Busan.

The use of a train as the setting for the film is an inspired and deliberate choice by Sang-ho as we are presented by a cross-section of society; the very rich, the very poor, the young and old. Sang-ho also wrote the film and he gives us a glimpse into each of these passengers lives and makes us care for the protagonists of this story. From a burly wrestler and would-be father and his pregnant wife, to a pair of elderly sisters, and a group of high-schoolers playing baseball and the girl who has an unrequieted crush on one of them. The film succeeds because of the performances. Former MMA trainer turned South Korean character actor Don Lee gives a standout performance as Sang-hwa, an expectant father whom Seok-Woo almost locks out into a train car full of zombies in a bid to save his own skin. Sang-hwa considers hedge fund managers to be leeches and the 2 bond over the course of the film and this helps Seok-Woo grow as a person. This is especially in contrast to the business suited man who represents the same type of man Seok-Woo is at the start of the film but doesn’t have to suffer the perils Seok-Woo and his friends due from the zombies. It creates a dichotomy where we see even fighting the zombies to shelter makes Seok-Woo, Su-an and the others in their group lesser people to the entourage of well-off business people cowering in fear near the front of the train.

A big reason the film succeeds is due to smart use of resources. The film employs hundreds upon hundreds of extras; that, couple with the judicious use of CGI and practical effects makeup, makes their threat immediate and terrifying. The zombies themselves are a cross between 28 Days Later‘s rage zombies and those from films such as Tombs of the Blind Dead, World War Z, and the vampires from The Strain. Sang-ho makes great use of clever casting in his zombies, including contortionists in many scenes to make them appear that much more terrifying.

But ultimately, the main reason the film works in great casting. Gong Yoo and Kim Su-an are remarkable in their willingness to be vulnerable on screen and the ending of this film, while evoking Night of the Living Dead, is extremely powerful and unique. Kim Su-an is a remakrable child actress and is the heart of the film throughout. Gong Yoo creates a very real relatable character in Seok-Woo and his character’s arc feels very real and earned. The film is really unique and to spoil very much more of it would be a crime. But it is important to note that the film works by making you care about the people involved. As a viewer, you feel invested and the greatest thing about classic horror and even Romero’s films is that the worst antagonists aren’t zombies; they are people acting out of self interest and this film very strongly follows in that mold.

Train to Busan is in limited release now. Seek it out – it is one of the year’s best.