South Korea is not a country that springs to mind when you think of tightly made ‘End of the World’ zombie apocalypse dramas. It is therefore understandable that when a film like TRAIN TO BUSAN starts to appear at festivals word of mouth will begin to spread. By the time the film had reached Grimmfest 2016 word had spread considerably and arguably this was one of the most popular films of the entire event.
TRAIN TO BUSAN is the story of a Father and his daughter at the end of the world. Seok-Woo, a man who has a workaholic nature and questionable ability as a parent, has let his daughter down again. It’s her birthday and all Soo-An wants is to see her Mother who lives in Busan. For once Seok-Woo puts the needs of his daughter first and they soon find themselves boarding a bullet train. It will be both the best and worst decision of their lives as this train becomes the last train to depart on the cusp of a zombie apocalypse. As the plague spreads like wildfire through the cities and suburbs the race is on to reach the safe haven presented by Busan however as is often the case in ‘end of the world’ situations, being a monster isn’t just the remit of the undead.
Whilst this style of movie is fairly common in Western cinema it’s certainly the first time a South Korean movie has presented itself so well on a global field. Whilst a lot of South Koreas horror output has previously revolved around ghost stories, TRAIN TO BUSAN rides the waves of the undead craze and as a result has taken in over $100 million worldwide at this point in time. Whilst comparisons to the recent WORLD WAR Z are inevitable it has something that the Brad Pitt starring behemoth often lacked: a heart. Lead Seok-Woo starts the film as a cold man of industry, who adheres to an almost scrooge-like level of selfishness. It’s only when exposed to the cynicisms of man through the actions and reactions of his daughter that he sees the value in helping those in need. In contrast to previous Shocktober film MOST LIKELY TO DIE, the characters in this film are all wonderfully realised, with motivations, justifications and reasons to want to go on living. You actually care when they’re in peril and it’s sad to see them be consumed by the virus ravaging the country. The exception to this are a few of the non-undead antagonists. They’re realised to screen so repugnantly that their expected demise cannot arrive quick enough. I find it a lot harder to judge someones performance via subtitles but particular note should go to Kim Su-an as Soo-An. Child actors can often have a hard time carrying the same motivation and drive of their adult counterparts but she brings a stellar performance to the table here, creating one of the emotional anchor points of the film.
Moving behind the camera much should be said of the quality of the production. Whilst far below the budget of its immediate contemporary, TRAIN TO BUSAN does an amazing amount with what translates to a less than $10 million budget. The undead are well realised and there are a few standout effects sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in a far bigger more expansive Hollywood production. This is director Sang-ho Yeons first live action feature film, although he has had a history with animation (including prequel Seoul Station). It astounds me that this is the case as he has directed a film that carries an incredible sense of scale and mastery of the film medium. It is paced perfectly, never losing momentum and carrying through to a satisfying (albeit melancholy) conclusion.
The only negative comment I have relates to the score. At times it feels like the wrong music was applied to a scene, with a gruelling mid-film sequence having lighter music punctuated by the sound of an organ. It could be a cultural thing (I’m not familiar enough with South Korean cinema to judge), but it just struck me as an off-kilter choice and not one that worked. Elsewhere in the film the score is decent, playing nicely to accentuate what is happening on screen.
TRAIN TO BUSAN is the sort of film that results in me looking forward to what happens next, not only for the world the story takes part in, but for Sang-ho Yeon. He has a real flair for action and horror and I hope he continues to play in this genre, hopefully experiencing the same freedom he did here. Whether he’s involved in the sequel currently in development is unknown, either way it is shaping up to be a bigger and more star studded film than the first and hopefully this doesn’t come at the expense of the heart that drove the original so successfully.
TRAIN TO BUSAN continues to play festivals around the world and is available on DVD/Blu-Ray in the UK from December 31st.