When facing a crisis, will you save yourself or go out of your way to help others? Picking the second option will definitely paint you in better light as a human being, though we’re more likely to go by the first scenario instinctively, particularly when it is concerning life-or-death situation. Like when a horde of zombies is coming at you at breakneck speed, a la Train of Busan.
It’s easy for us to tsk-tsk those who put themselves first, but let’s be real, if we were in their shoes, i bet we’d all be running for our lives, others’ be damned. But we all soon judged by a little kid for doing that, so i guess the middle ground is to not abandon those along the way and/or within reach. This is possibly the moral lesson from this straightforward suspenseful apocalyptic flick. A train to Busan + zombies — how more obvious can it get?
This movie sets its creepy tone right off the bat, quickly builds its intensity, and doesn’t let up till the last minute. Albeit knowing we’ll start from backstory, i couldn’t be at ease knowing what awaits the characters onboard the bullet train: a life-changing ride, reconnecting the estranged father-daughter duo, yet an indelible nightmare.
Gong Yoo plays a typical workaholic dad coming at the expense of a healthy relationship with his (ex)wife and only child, quietly precocious Soo-an (the only name i could recall, well portrayed by Kim Soo-ahn). It’s her birthday and she wishes to spend it with mom. Dad agrees to take her to Busan but instead of keeping her company, he falls asleep the moment he settles into the comfy KTX seat.
Things have already begun to feel odd: eerie city, speeding first responders, a girl with bloodied leg hopping onto the cabin before the door closes and the train departs. The injury soon takes full effect and overcomes her, turning her eyes white, making her twitch like a robot and jump at her first target. One becomes two, two become many, and before long everyone is screaming and running for dear life away from the mayhem. And thus the short but looong journey warding off highly infectious flesh-biting undead and making it to Busan alive begins.
Train to Busan easily is the most intense thriller i’ve seen in recent years. Nearly the entire 118 minutes of the movie are jam-packed with heart-stopping race, chase, and scare, pausing just long enough to strategize or for some character moments. My eyes were glued to the screen, my hands clutched together, i wasn’t sure i was breathing properly. I couldn’t even relax during the downtimes, waiting for the other shoe to drop, cuz turns of events happened in a split second.
Horror is listed as one of the genres, but trust me, it won’t be half as scary as you may fear. And that’s coming from me who hate horror movies with all my might. There isn’t much gore or blood gush; the zombies are terrifying for sure, yet they aren’t the horrifying kind which makes you recoil or forces you to close eyes/ears. The terror is predominantly created through tight camera angles. I in fact still had time to marvel at the undead’s potent performance and makeup, the number of extras involved, etc — probably to distract myself. Ha.
Besides horror, disaster film is also the genre i’m eschewing, because i feel like the setup and conclusion are similar across the board. Not to mention the characterizations; it’s a given that among the passengers there shall be the selfish, the selfless, the fighter, the weak, the wimpy, and the gallant. That’s why i was hesitant about Train to Busan, but decided to catch it anyway since my favorite papa bear is in it, and i don’t think i can ever get enough of him. His character is an easy favorite as well — a man who can be sweet and unwittingly funny, a muscly protector yet an unsung hero, makes you laugh at the beginning and cry at the end. Ma Dong-seok’s a good ad-libber too, that i wonder how much of his dry humor here was his improvisation.
While it may offer a social commentary on Korean government and society, i believe the theme is universal. I liked that trapped passengers are made up of people from all age groups (from kids to students to working adults to the elderly), social standing (from a homeless man to a COO), and relationships (baseball club members, sisters, single parent, expecting couple) as if to drive home a point that one’s money or status doesn’t mean much in the face of catastrophic events; one’s humanity does. On the surface, everyone appears to be fighting zombies, but their true common enemy is the self-serving businessman (Kim Eui-sung). How many people — including the main characters — were devoured due to his selfishness? Gah! I swear the whole theater was cursing at him, he could very well be the villain of the year.
Another thing i liked is the realness of the action sequence. There is neither unbelievable maneuver nor inhumane endurance. The survivors quickly reach their limit and are smart enough to spot and use the undead’s weaknesses to their advantage; unfortunately, all of these efforts still lead to a high body count.
My two biggest quibbles are the relatively unknown cause of the outbreak save for a brief mention of it being Dad’s scheme and the largely inconclusive ending (Is there a cure? What are they gonna do with infected masses?), which can be easily overlooked given the sharp directing, gripping execution, tight plot, and believable acting. The main cast is great, the antagonist is unworldly egomaniacal, the child actor is a standout. Kim Soo-ahn delivers subdued acting for most of the film’s run and switches to a heart-wrenching performance at the height of the story’s emotional arc. Suffice to say, i was a blubber mess.
All i could think of at the end was this poor little girl may have been scarred for life, experiencing these nightmares on her birthday!
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Production: RedPeter Film, 2016
Cast: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Soo-ahn, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee, Kim Eui-sung
Genre: Action Thriller, Horror Suspense, K-movie