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Train to Busan
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Releasing "Train to Busan" in the United States just two days after its opening in South Korea is an incredible show of confidence, considering that for all the praise Korean genre film gets from critics, they don't have quite the same base that rapidly-released Chinese and Indian films do. It is, however, warranted confidence - director Yeon Sang-ho has made one of the most exhilarating action-horror films in years, a smart zombie movie that combines the scale of something like "World War Z" with the tight focus of the genre's classics.

There is, naturally, some discussion about whether to get on the train at all; workaholic Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is not particularly eager to take a day off to accompany daughter Su-an (Kim Soo-an) on the train so that she can visit her mother, but it is her tenth birthday. So they get on; it should just be an hour's trip from Seoul with a few stops. Also making the trip are Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jeong Yu-mi), senior citizen sisters Jong-gil (Park Myeong-sin) and In-gil (Ye Soo-jeong), the rail line's president Yong-seok (Kim Ee-seong); a high school baseball team including Young-guk (Choi Woo-sik), and Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee), his classmate who is not used to getting brushed off when she says she likes someone. It seems like a normal enough trip, but just as they're leaving, Su-an notices someone on the platform pouncing onto another like a hungry animal, and a passenger who didn't look so healthy made it onto the train just as the doors were closing.

They're departing from Seoul Station, which happens to be the name of the other zombie movie that Yeon has coming out this summer whose events overlap with this one, although neither is necessary to enjoy the other - in fact, the festival program barely mentions that they are connected. It's noteworthy because Train to Busan marks a major departure for Yeon, since Seoul Station and his two features before that are stark animated looks at people in the lower economic classes that would barely have any space for a guy as well-off as Seok-woo and certainly don't hint at any interest in making a jump to such a sleek, polished production. Station shows that he has what it takes to make a brutal, uncompromising horror movie, but can that translate to live action?

Oh, yes. While the opening scenes introducing the audience to Seok-woo and the other passengers are sort of familiar at times - and I suspect that the ethically dubious stock deals he's working on reference specific things that a Korean audience will recognize better than an international one - he gets through them with some clever variations: The "did you even remember to get Su-an a present for her birthday" bit plays out a bit differently than usual to establish Seok-woo as something a little different than the usual inattentive father, while it's the pretty-and-knows-it Jin-hee that pursues the somewhat shy Young-guk rather than the other way around. Having used a bit at the beginning to establish that the undead will feature in the movie, he's free to have stuff happen in the corners before exploding into full view and overwhelming the characters and audience.

And when he does, it's damn impressive. Yeon builds his action scenes around the train and the stations in very specific ways - things will hinge on the manner in which a door locks or how shade is provided on a platform, with just enough time spent establishing this so that folks not familiar with the environment will get a sense of what's possible without overdoing it for the commuters. Given that this is the start of the outbreak, his fast zombies have relatively little prosthetic makeup but will sometimes contort in ways that remind you that they're alive and hungry rather than shambling corpses, with enough energy to move through the train and stations like a wave being pushed through a narrow channel. The film may not be gore-intensive, but it's got an intensity that comes from knowing minute-to-minute just how crappy a situation is with each new situation requiring a different enough clever solution that it's hard to get complacent. It builds up to a moment when a small group realizes that they're going to have to go full Snowpiercer to first reconnect with their loved ones and then get to the relative safety at the front of the train, and seldom lets up after that.

Some horror fans may lament the lack of extreme gore through much of the movie, but it's got the sort of cast where one doesn't necessarily mind if the worst of it is concentrated in the end. Young Kim Soo-an is a big part of that; as much as she's presented as a kid sad about her parents divorcing and maybe leaning more toward her mother, she also plays Su-an's curiosity and basic sweetness so that we see that as more important to who she is even if it's not always how she comes across. Gong Yoo, similarly, is able to present Seok-woo's most selfish impulses while still showing that he's not really a bad father most of the time, and it's fun to watch him and Ma Dong-seok's Sang-hwa rub each other the wrong way, although one of their best scenes is when they exchange wordless glances with Choi Woo-sik as the characters find a car full of Young-guk's teammates. A lot of folks shine in smaller roles, too, with Jeong Seok-yong especially standing out as the train's engineer, who is often seen only briefly but is quite fully formed when he steps out of the engine.

Nobody would accuse Yeon of delivering his movies' messages gently under the best circumstances and a zombie movie is hardly where you're going to find subtlety, but he does find something to hope for underneath, even if he presents it in the inverted fashion of Seok-woo telling his daughter that she doesn't have to be good in this sort of situation like a genuinely concerned father. It's no stretch to see Yonog-seok used as a proxy for the sort of self-interested leader who plays upon others' fears to save himself, but he does it very well.

One thing that makes "Train to Busan" special is that by being a movable feast for the undead, it feels a bit more apocalyptic than a lot of zombie movies, with all of Korea going to hell rather than what, for all we can tell, may be an isolated pocket, making it exciting and high-stakes in a different way than you usually see, even while it keeps a tight, emotional focus on one set of survivors. Thrilling, clever, and brutal when the time comes, it's a pretty terrific movie, well worth getting across the Pacific as quickly as possible.

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originally posted: 08/02/16 02:36:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/10/20 Langano Great film. 4 stars
4/09/19 Kengh Better than World War Z. One of the representatives of the Korean film. 5 stars
7/04/17 Jack Simply the best Zombie film I have ever seen. An instant Classic. 5 stars
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  DVD: 17-Jan-2017


  DVD: 17-Jan-2017

Directed by
  Sang-ho Yeon

Written by
  Sang-ho Yeon

  Yoo Gong
  Dong-seok Ma
  Woo-sik Choi
  Yu-mi Jeong
  Kim Soo-ahn

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