Every now and then, a movie comes out of Asia, promising to be an industry-changing cinematic event. It is then usually accompanied by words like “Jackie Chan”, “John Woo” or “Andy Lau”, only to become an expensive and noisy exercise, but without much to say.
And then comes this little horrific beauty.
Directed by South Korea’s enfant terrible auteur/director, and sardonic social commentator, Yeon Sang-ho, Train To Busan (Busanhaeng / 부산행 ) is the director’s first live-action feature, following his controversial animated films which examine the cracks in modern Korean society.
Both Train and its animated prequel Seoul Station (Seoul-yeok / 서울역 ) were released this year to much acclaim and you read this right. He made an animated film AND its live-action sequel AT THE SAME TIME … Asian filmmakers, he’s your new gold standard!
Train To Busan places us front and centre in a devastating zombie apocalypse, unveiled in all its visceral glory through Korean lenses, and I don’t just mean the camera. A group of very relatable and real human characters are trapped on a high-speed train hurtling from Seoul, towards the seaside city of Busan, while a massive zombie infection ravages across the country … and right inside their very train.
A fund manager and his estranged little daughter; teenage sweethearts in a baseball team; two elderly aunties who might have walked right out of SS2; an asshole CEO of a major corporation; a pugnacious yet likeable guy and his pregnant wife; these are but a few among the hundreds stuck on this speeding locomotive of terror.
Look, we’ve seen this all this before in World War Z, I Am Legend and even Snakes On A Plane, and more recently, in fellow countryman Bong Joon-ho’s apocalyptic train movie, Snowpiercer.
The familiar tropes however underscore a slyly subversive storyline that seems utterly simplistic, but creates a hugely emotional connection. Like all good zombie movies, the undead aren’t the real evil here. They’re the premise, like an earthquake or volcanic eruption. It’s the living we need to fear, and not the walking dead. Good, evil, nobility, sacrifice, cowardice, resilience, courage, duty and mindless obedience are just some of the themes explored to the hilt. From lions to lemmings, a microcosm of Korean society gets crammed into a high–speed tube speeding towards impossible salvation.
Granted, it’s a tad melodramatic, and there are several “stupid move” moments. Some contrived situations also appear, to push the plot forward, but this film is quintessentially Korean and that’s actually the quiet triumph of this blockbuster. In the process of liberally adapting a Western cinematic/horror genre, a culturally-unique story emerges, all while serving as a gritty mirror to society, warts and all.
How’s that for a cinematic event.
As the credit rolls, it is hard to believe that this is Yeon’s first live-action feature. The direction is relentless and the lens work is flawless. He manages to make the actors give their all, and augments it with frenetic editing. The visual and sound effects are on par with the best of Hollywood, even though this is obviously made on a much smaller budget.
You’d also think that a subtitled indie horror zombie movie would not work as a heartbreaking story of human relationships, let alone an essay on South Korean class warfare, but it does. Forget the security blanket. Enter this “horror” movie armed with a box of Kleenex, trust me.
So while its still lingering in our cinemas, 가자! Kaja! Board the Train To Busan!