Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train To Busan” is a mix of zombies, Korean cinema and Hollywood

Sequel to the animated film “Seoul Station”, also by Yeon Sang-ho, “Train to Busan” is the film with the most admissions in South Korea for 2016, with more than 11.5 million. This number places it in the 11th position of the all-time list with admissions in the country, despite the fact that it is one of the very few South Korean productions with zombies.

Seok-woo is a fund manager in Seoul, who has separated from his wife and now lives with his kid daughter, Su-an. Obsessed with his work and money, Seok-woo has been neglecting his family for years. However, he finally succumbs to his daughter’s wish to bring her to her mother, in Busan, for her birthday. The next morning, they take the KTX train from Seoul station to Busan, but a little before the train leaves, a zombified woman manages to get on , and soon spreads the virus to the passengers inside the train.

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Now, Seok-woo and Su-an have to survive in the infested train, while they are soon joined by Sang-hwa and his pregnant wife, Sung-gyeong, and a baseball player named Yong-guk, who is looking for his girlfriend, Jin-hee. At the same time, Yong-suk, another businessman, and a bunch of other passengers have secluded themselves in the wagon, and are unwilling to let anyone else get in.

Yeon Sang-ho directs a film, which definitely moves towards being a blockbuster, but manages to induce it with a number of elements that make it much more meaningful than the majority of zombie and action films. Drama (and occasionally melodrama, obviously for commercial reasons) is one of them, as is the change in Seok-woo’s attitude, who eventually becomes a person willing to do good, in a genuinely humanistic concept. The elaborate script, which retains the agony as it switches genres, is another factor, as is the case with the injections of humor, which occasionally occur through chaos. Both of the ending sequences also move in that direction, with the dramatic element being the dominant one, instead of action.

Furthermore, the film features a number of social comments, mainly through allegories, as mentioned by my friend, Bastian Meiresonne, an expert on film allegory. The most obvious one is that of the contemporary world, where ambition is the most crucial ability in order for someone to ascend the ladder of the socioeconomic environment. The zombie infestation serves as the allegory of this world, where dog-eat-dog is the rule.

The separation of the passengers in the train, which leaves some safe in a protected wagon and the rest struggling to survive, is an allegory regarding the gap between the rich and the poor. Separation is actually a key part of the film, as there is one based on Confucianism, that separates men from women, while the sisters that are separated symbolize the dichotomy of North and South Korea. Lastly, money is presented as a value that separates families, as in the case of the protagonist.

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Additionally, the “safe” passengers are portrayed as people willing to do anything to protect their safe environment, without caring the least for the lives of the have-nots. The fact that the protagonists have to give every inch of their power and even self-sacrifice to survive is an allegory of the class rebellion, as the only way to achieve their goal of equality. Lastly, a message is presented when Seok-woo closes the door on Sang-hwa; people may have the instinct of self-preservation that extends to their family members, but they are a long way from extending it to their neighbors and other people in general.

However, and despite all this depth, “Train to Busan” is first and foremost, a very impressive action film. Starting with the zombies, which follow the rules of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and are actually very quick, and adding the claustrophobic environment of the train, the result is one of the most agonizing depictions the creatures ever had. Furthermore, the scenes where they crash into each other as they are speeding towards their prey are utterly horrific, although the one that truly stands apart occurs when they form a mass of sorts, in order to stop a moving train.

Yeon Sang-ho’s previous works were mostly animated. In that fashion, he tried to implement the animation aesthetics, particularly regarding the action scenes, in “Train To Busan”. With the help of visual effects supervisor Jung Hwang-su, he succeeded to the fullest, as the action in the film is very close to that of his animations. Starting with the appearance and the movement of zombies, continuing to the death of people in their hands and the various scenes involving trains, the special effects are magnificent in their hyperbole. Along with some show-stopping techniques in crucial scenes, “Train to Busan” is an audiovisual masterpiece.

Furthermore, Yang Ji-mo did a great job in editing the film, as he retains a steady and fast rhythm throughout its duration, while he occasionally inserts footage that help the film become more impressive. Two sequences truly highlight his work. The first one includes the scenes where the fighting in the light repeatedly gives its place to the ones in the darkness, where the zombies stay still, and vice versa. The second sequence is the one that switches from Kim-soo being killed as he tries to hold off the creatures, while the rest of the “gang” try to enter the safe wagon, against the wills of those already in it.

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Acting in zombie movies is usually on a very low level, since the genre tends to focus on the action and the creatures, rather than the actual actors. However, Yeon Sang-ho used a different tactic, since the film also features much drama and the occasional comedy, which demands good acting, at least to some degree. In that fashion, Gong-yoo is quite good as Seok-woo, the detached executive that has been ignoring his family for years and now has to make up for it. The fact that he is not completely good, particularly when his and his daughter’s survival are at stake, adds another interesting layer in his character, and he is very convincing in that aspect.  Ma Dong-seok as Kim Soo-an holds the most entertaining role in the film, being great in the dramatic, comic, and action sequences, as his presence always seems to elevate the film. Kim Su-an as Seok-woo’s kid daughter is also great, in a very mature role for a child that avoids the usual standards of similar roles that just demand cuteness. Kim Eui-sung as Yong-suk is impressive as the definite villain of the film, as he portrays a truly despicable human being that is actually even worse than the zombies.

“Train To Busan” is definitely a blockbuster, but its depth, artistry and acting place it on a higher level than most films of the category.

The film screened during Five Flavours Film Festival, in Warsaw