Train to Busan Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Studiocanal
Written and Directed by Sang-ho Yeon
2016, 118 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
DVD released on October 28th 2016
Yoo Gong as Seok Woo
Soo-an Kim as Soo-an
Yu-mi Jeong as Sung Gyeong
Dong-seok Ma as Sang Hwa
Since its early noughties heyday, the South Korean horror movie has sadly dropped off the radar a little. During a period when Hollywood and America were going retro but not particularly inspired (Wrong Turn and House of 1000 Corpses, I love you, but no), South Korean genre movies were where all the juicy action was at. Oldboy, A Tale of Two Sisters, Three… Extremes, all the way up to (roughly) 2010’s I Saw the Devil; South Korea was the place to go if you liked your horror films weird, disturbing and incredibly original.
As the novelty wore off and some of the talent shipped out to Hollywood (most notably the wonderful Park-Chan wook), the South Korean horror film eventually ebbed away, with other various flavours-of-the-month taking its place for critical and audience favour. Adding insult to injury, they even remade Oldboy. Even as the films within became less and less remarkable, I couldn’t help but keep watching, in the hope of recapturing that elusive feeling of watching the Vengeance trilogy or I Saw the Devil for the first time again. Enter Train to Busan, which single-handedly restored my faith in South Korean horror pictures and zombies again.
The plot is simple: struggling divorcee dad and pencil-pusher Seok Woo, as a gift for his unhappy daughter’s birthday, takes her to visit her mother in Busan. To get there, they travel via the Korean High-speed rail from their home in Seoul. As they board, so do your typical gang of horror movie types: the gruff working-class type and his pregnant wife, a bastardly businessman, smelly homeless guy, two elderly sisters, a high school baseball team… and a lady with a zombie bite to the leg. Infection inevitably ensues.
So far, so Howl. Train to Busan is essentially 28 Days Later on a train, with the passengers and conductors battling to stay alive while besieged by an army of zombies both on the train and off of it. There’ll be a few stops along the way, giving the characters and action some room to breathe, but for the most part, this is a taut, efficient action horror film which makes the most of its high-speed claustrophobia and vicious, snarling zombies. The action sequences (which rarely let up once the film hits its stride) are shockingly good, made all the better for the characters at the heart of them; likeable, relatable people who you genuinely want to survive through to the end (save for one colossal Walter Peck-esque asshole who you’ll want to see die, slowly and painfully). Crisp, clear and surprisingly bright (the only occasional dips into darkness are an actual plot point), it’s one of the best-looking horror films I’ve ever seen. With its zombies which flock and crowd the screen, flooding through broken windows and down railway tracks clinging to escaping trains, it’s the movie that World War Z should have been.
But, again, that action is always in service to the characters – specifically, the development of Seok Woo from selfish coward to strong, heroic dad. He’s ably helped by onscreen daughter Soo-an Kim, who manages to not irritate even once. The supporting characters are well drawn too, showcasing a heart that makes Train to Busan feel deeply human, even when the men are busting through train carriages punching zombies in the chops like they’re in a Walking Dead action sequence.
And it’s The Walking Dead that Train to Busan reminds me of the most. No, not the cardboard-character TV series or books; but rather the Telltale videogame, and its examination of simple human relationships under the pressure of zombie apocalypse. And, like The Walking Dead (videogame), Train to Busan will leave you broken, sobbing, and far more traumatised than you’d ever expect to feel after a kick-ass zombie action flick. Inevitably, the kick-ass action does dilute some of the film’s brains (there are some very typical stupid decisions being made by characters here), the story isn’t exactly unpredictable, and it runs a little out of steam towards the end (like a train, geddit) but when the rest looks and feels this fun, these things can be overlooked.
Believe the hype: Train to Busan is that good. Not quite as good as the South Korean horror Gold Standard, but still the best zombie movie we've had in years. That said, I did watch this film in what may be the perfect environment: living in China, (which is not South Korea, I know, don't worry) where its reception has been massive, viewed the day before a lengthy trip on one of their own high-speed railways (very similar in appearance to the KTX, as it happens). So yeah, I might be biased. Consider my ticket well and truly punched.