Train to Busan (2016)
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Starring: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Soo-ahn
As the last train out of the city departs Seoul, a father (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Soo-ahn) are traveling to see his estranged wife for his child’s birthday. Reports begin to come in about inexplicable violence erupting all over the country, the train speeds along with an unexpected passenger; an infected citizen who is developing an uncontrollable urge to feed. As the father and daughter fight for survival, they will join up with other passengers including an expecting couple (Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi) to last until they can reach the train’s final destination; the reportedly infection free safe zone of Busan.
A massive success in its home country, Train to Busan arrives internationally to provide one of the more intense, ferocious, and purely entertaining zombie films to be released anywhere in years. Director Yeon, who makes his live feature debut here after his terrific animated film The King of Pigs and The Fake, delivers an adrenaline fueled horror thriller that was heralded as Korea’s first big budget zombie film. Already been circled for a remake by Studios Sony and 20th Century Fox, the film is one of those cultural pop moments for its instant penetration on a national level.
Gong Yoo plays Seok-woo, a busy and inattentive father who loves his daughter. As he struggles with stress from work and his failing marriage he nonetheless agrees to take his daughter to his ex-wife for her birthday gift. As things go to hell, he is able to reflect on what is truly important to him and finds real growth as a character as his decisions when in crisis reveal why type of person he truly is. The handles his action very well, I’ve always been fairly impressed with his physical ability since he first made his debut as one of the younger crop of talents at the beginning of the 2000s. Ma Dong-seok, as Sang-hwa, is a bruiser of a character actor; he has a real physicality to his portrayal both in his action elements as well as the interactions between other characters, especially Seok-woo and Actress Jung who plays his wife. Kim Soo-ahn is does a terrific job as Seok-woo’s daughter; she’s your typical girl who believes she’s more adult than she really is but with an amazingly pure heart. She goes through some serious situations for a kid her age and she has real moments that can touch you despite some of the emotional cheats that other films in this genre tend to employ. The way emotes, specifically when she is crying, is up there with some of the top dramatic actresses in Korea already and I can certainly see her maintaining a long career in the industry should she choose to continue acting.
The film itself stands apart from many of the other recent zombie offerings with its unrelenting intensity, and some real heart. The film doesn’t shy away from the Korean melodrama that permeates pretty much all genres at some point, but it truly feels earned here and handles it in a way that is true to the film and memorable. It’s not something that is done well, especially in a film as big as this.
The action scenes range from good to great. Terrific variety in locale and technique, the train elements remind me of another terrific Korean film, Snowpiercer. It feels like a boxing match at times; scenes of extended and intense violence with quick breathers so the characters, and the audience, can catch their breath. Makeup effects are great with veins and wounds being highlighted with practical effects and limited CGI. What visual effects are utilized are done so well and sparingly with care to never take you out of a film the way many bad effects shots tend to do.
Train to Busan is one of those rarities; a big budget film that delivers on expectations. It’s brutal at times, gentle in others and densely packed with content that never outweighs the material or the performances. Out of the dozens of films I’ve seen this year, this has been one of the most purely entertaining and engaging pictures so far. By years’ end I can safely say this is a film that I will associate with 2016 and it will certainly make it onto my top end of year list. Do yourself a favor and check it out!