Review: Train to Busan (2016)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #680

Also known as Busanhaeng
Number of Views: One

Release Date: May 13, 2016 (Cannes)
Sub-Genre: Zombie
Country of Origin: South Korea
Budget: $9,000,000
Box Office: $87,500,000
Running Time: 118 minutes
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Producer: Lee Dong-ha
Screenplay: Park Joo-suk
Visual Effects: Jung Hwang-su
Cinematography: Lee Hyung-deok
Score: Jang Young-gyu
Editing: Yang Jin-mo
Studios: Next Entertainment World, RedPeter Film
Distributor: Next Entertainment World
Stars: Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an, Kim Eui-sung, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee, Choi Gwi-hwa, Jung Suk-yong, Ye Soo-jung, Park Myung-sin, Jang Hyuk-jin, Kim Chang-hwan, Shim Eun-kyung

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Jang Young-gyu “Goodbye World”

[2] Jang Young-gyu “Train To Busan”

[3] The Mad Capsule Markets “Tribe”

Should an unforeseen zombie apocalypse break out any time soon, then the first place I’d be heading would be The Land of the Morning Calm, Korea. You see, while homegrown genre cinema has undoubtedly seen a significant flourish in recent years, the undead have had precious little representation and what they have mustered has been fairly uninspiring. However, with the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus pandemic sweeping South Korea and unrest over corruption and economic disproportion steadily escalating, it seems like the ideal moment to set a new trend and take a few sly digs at the ever-widening class divide in the process.

Step up Yeon Sang-Ho, whose first live action feature Train to Busan broke the hoodoo in some style. Benefiting from a midnight screening at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, the film then went on to gross almost $90 million worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing Korean film of all time in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore and recording well over ten million movie goers in its native country.

In addition, Sang-Ho released an animé prequel named Seoul Station, barely a month later just to further corner the market. Comparisons with Marc Forster’s World War Z are no less than should be expected and not altogether unfounded, while it also shares the splenetic urgency of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later & Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza’s [REC].

Our unlikely and reluctant hero is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), an emotionally bankrupt fund manager, whose obsession with his work has led to his marriage breaking down irreparably and left his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Su-an), wondering what she has done to deserve a parent so utterly neglectful. After his latest attempt to bribe her into not giving him “that look” with a brand new Wii U fall woefully flat (two identical Nintendo consoles in one bedroom is a little excessive even for Koreans), Soo-an decides it is high time she lay down the gauntlet.

Insisting that he take her cross-country to Busan the very next day for a much-needed visit to her mother, he is left with little alternative than to cave in to her no-nonsense demands. The best way to travel to Busan just so happens to be via bullet train; thus we head straight over to the platform to catch our shuttle. All aboard.

Amongst the other poor unfortunates taking this ill-fated trip are working class motor mouth Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Sung-kyu (Jung Yu-mi); filthy rich CEO Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung); bright young baseball prospect Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik) and his own personal cheerleader Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee); and a fare-dodging vagrant (Choi Gwi-hwa) who appears to know something none of the other passengers do and has locked himself down in the restroom indefinitely, where he babbles to himself incoherently.

Unbeknownst to any of them, a teenage girl has also hopped aboard (quite literally) after succumbing to a rather painful looking and fast spreading bite. With the train now in motion and quarters as close as they come, we just know it’s all about to go off big time.

And go off it bloody well does. Barely fifteen minutes in and the virus has spread right through the bustling carriages, leaving dozens of decidedly impatient mutants craving nowt but carnage. Bearing in mind that this particular strain are light on their feet and possess absolutely no sense of social awareness or public spirit, you can imagine that things get messy quick and Train to Busan will make you very much right in your presumption.

It’s a goddamn free-for-all, and with over 100 minutes of screen time still to populate, it appears that Sang-Ho may have shot his toxic load way too soon. However, there are a number of reasons why this doesn’t end up the case.

Anyone familiar with this man’s countless animations will be all too aware of his penchant for writing characters lacking in remorse. We’re talking misogynistic, potty-mouthed sadists with few to no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Here they are quite rightly toned down some, but there’s still plentiful cut-throat endeavor amongst the forced cooperation as the numbers begin to dwindle at a velocity no abacus in the world could ever hope to tally. If you get your kicks from watching shitty people suffer in ways no less than conclusive, then you’ve selected the right train my friends as this lot put the loco in locomotive.

Indeed, the jostling meatbags often resemble a stack of dominoes as they clamber doggedly over one another to get to untainted nearby flesh with nary a thought for their own personal safety and this is where those World War Z comparisons will most likely be made. Sang-Ho makes the very most of the cramped confines, forcing survivors to improvise using everything from door locks, shatter-proof windows, fire extinguishers, cellphones and luggage racks to protect themselves from the continuous onslaught. Lee Hyung-deok’s ferociously acrobatic cinematography keeps up alarmingly well with the ever spiraling madness all things considered and we are seldom afforded a solitary moment to draw breath or perform a quick limb check. 

Another revelation is the director’s decision to make his chief protagonist much less heroic than the customary disaster movie front man. Seok-woo is unapologetic in his elitism and his sole priority is the preservation of both himself and his daughter. If this means slamming the door on frantic fellow passengers, then so be it, and it’s fascinating watching him gradually learn the hard way that cooperation is the only hope either of them have of enduring this nightmare.

While lion’s share of his fellow commuters are little more than finger foods, Sang-hwa provides the ideal foil for our wayward hero, referring to him as “asshole” first out of annoyance and later mild affection. Moreover, there are three or four characters whose fates we’re allowed to care about and this keeps us on our toes every time it appears as though we may be about to derail.

Cutie pie Soo-an is also instrumental to our investment and the range of performance from one of such tender years is way beyond extraordinary. I shit you not, there’s not an elder on-screen who can touch her. Toss in a dash of class warfare and some biting political satire and nigh on two hours steams past by like an express train on a direct collision course with hell.

Train to Busan is not perfect, far from it in fact, and no amount of underlying social commentary can stop it from becoming a little too manic for its own good at times. That said, when you consider the dearth of decent zombie flicks coming out of the middle east, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a tremendous technical achievement, and the fact that it stands alongside 28 Days Later and [REC] without ever looking out of its depth is simply remarkable.

If reading reams of subtitles isn’t your thing, then fret not, as there are precious few openings for deep meaningful conversations and the emphasis here is on full steam ahead all the way. Meanwhile, that’s South Korea well and truly off my holiday hot list. Think I’ll wait for the next train thanks guys.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Herein lies my only gripe, as while there is no shortage of pedal to metal action to be found here, this doesn’t necessarily translate to gushing grue. Exchanges are lightning fast and seldom are we placed front and centre once the teeth sink in, at least, not for any great length of time. Perhaps most disturbing are the bloody smears and dense mutant slobber caked across the windows.

Read World War Z Appraisal
Read 28 Days Later Appraisal
Read [REC] Appraisal
Read Quarantine 2: Terminal Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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