I’m not exactly sure when and where I first heard of Train to Busan. Regardless, I knew I it was well appreciated by people and I knew I wanted to watch it. I’m a pretty big fan of zombie movies (waddup World War Z) and so I was reasonably sure that I’d like this film. On a similar note actually, I had heard that Train to Busan was a lot like World War Z, in terms of the presentation of zombies (not dumb, slow moving zombies, but terrifying, fast moving ones). I quite enjoyed World War Z, hence I also had high hopes for this movie. If you can’t tell, I was already beginning to psych myself out with just how high my expectations for this movie was. Surprisingly, the movie actually managed to reach and even exceed my expectations. Colour me shocked!
Going back to the World War Z comparison, I actually didn’t find the two movies to be that similar. I mean yes, they dealt with a very similar situation (escaping from fast-moving, flesh-eating zombies) and the effects of the zombies themselves were also markedly alike. Yet, I found that the two movies differed quite extensively in terms of the mood of the movie and the feeling of threat. I’ll expand on this in my review. So, without further ado, let’s get into it.
Train to Busan actually begins with an introduction to the main characters. There’s the closed off, aloof and workaholic single father, Seok-Woo, played by Gong Yoo. He’s a successful hedge fund manager (?) but struggles to be an emotionally and physically avaliable dad to his daughter Soo-An, played by Kim Su-an. Missing her mother and upset with her father’s unavailability (due to his workaholic nature), she wants to go to Busan to visit her mother for her birthday. Seok-Woo grudgingly agrees to bring her to his ex-wife and so the two board the train to Busan.
Also aboard the train are an adorable couple expecting a child. The outwardly tough and inwardly sweet husband Sang-hwa is played by Ma Dong-Seok and the heavily pregnant wife Seong-Kyeong, is played by Jung Yu-Mi. The two also sort of figure as guardian figures for Soo-An, on more than one occassion, due to her tendency to wander off and Seok-Woo’s workaholic tendencies that cause him to lose track of her.
Joining them are a group of school-going baseball players, with the star athlete Yong-Guk played by Choi Woo-Shik and his biggest fangirl, Jin Hee, played by Ahn So-Hee; arrogant, selfish, and rude businessman Yon-Su, played by Kim Eui-Sung; elderly sisters Jong-Gil and In-Gil, played by Park Myung-Sin and Ye Soo-jung respectively; the train driver played by Jung Suk-Yong; and a homeless man played by Choi Gwi-hwa.
The plot of the movie itself is quite simple. Due to some sort of gas leak/ explosion that happened at a resort, people in Korea began turning into zombie (through animal bites initially, it is implied). However, at the beginning of the movie, this predicament is not widespread or popularly reported. As such, all the characters board the train easily and without fuss, expecting a normal ride. All, except for the homeless man. As we’re shown, he’s presumably seen the zombies in action and is perhaps the only one who knows what is going doing in various parts of Korea. Hoping to escape from the terror, he boards the train and keeps quiet – scared by what he’s seen. Just before the train departs, an infected woman manages to sneak aboard. She’s obviously in pain and has been bitten. As the train begins its journey, a train attendant happens to come across the infected woman. She is concerned and tries to help her, only for the infected woman to complete her transformation into a zombie and bite her instead. Of course, this begins a rampage of sorts where the zombies start attacking people and people try desperately to get away from them — all while the train is still moving!
As the epidemic on the train spreads, we’re also given background information showing how the zombie virus has spread to various parts of South Korea and how some cities have been completely over-taken. The rest of the film deals with the characters various attempts to get away from the zombies. A journey that includes stopping in different places, fighting with zombies, catching new trains, etc. I’ll refrain from giving out a scene-by-scene review of the movie (as I’ve been trying to do so) and instead focus on some of my observations.
I mentioned earlier that I felt that Train to Busan had a different mood and feeling of threat than World War Z. Basically, in World War Z, there was the threat of zombies of course, but the threat itself wasn’t too overpowering. For example, right after Jerry is almost attacked by one of the zombies, he and his family are taken onto an airplane where the situation is explained. After every “scare” scene, there’s a calm scene because the characters were either a) away from the zombies or b) the threat had been neutralized/ was under control. As such, the mood of the film was also quite different. World War Z, along with playing like a typical survival flick, also played as investigative thriller. Jerry’s mission throughout the film was to figure out how the epidemic started and attempt to find a virus for it, the zombie attacks were just added perks.
Train to Busan, on the other hand, is completely different. First off, the threat of the zombies is ever-present. As all the action happens aboard a moving train, with normal people travelling alongside the zombies, there is no escape from the zombies. A single wrong move could cost the people their lives. I mean, yes sure, there were some “calm” scenes where the characters weren’t explicitly dealing with zombies. Yet, even then, the presence of danger was still felt as the characters were in fact trapped with them. In more than a few scenes, there’s literally just a single door separating the normal people from the zombies. Again, the threat of danger was imminent throughout the entire movie.
Similarly, Train to Busan played entirely like a survival movie. The characters in the movie had no other motive besides escaping alive from the zombies. No one was even thinking about finding a vaccine or how the epidemic spread. Survival was the first and only focus. And there’s a few extremely well done scenes that show just how laser focused all the passengers were on this goal. One that comes to mind, is when the train makes a stop at Daejeon station in an attempt to escape the zombies, only to be confronted with more zombies on the platform. In an effort to save themselves, all the passengers make a mad dash back onto the train. However, in their panic, some of passengers forget that some of the train carriages had zombies within them. So in their worry of getting away from the zombies at the train station, they opened up a random train carriage to board, only to be confronted by the zombies already in the train.
That scene itself I think also played really well into another positive for the film: the sense of reality. Even though the plausibility of a scenario like Train to Busan isn’t that high, the movie felt real. There was a real sense of loss. People died and turned into zombies. Passengers and characters sacrificed themselves. Some even sacrificed others in their quest for survival. Which brings me to another point: how well etched out the various characters were. Although the movie was largely focused on Seok-Woo and Su-An, the other supporting characters also had screen time. Yet, as the supporting cast was so large, not all the characters had an equal amount of screen time. However, even then, the characters still felt real. You could understand their motivations and imagine how they were in normal life (aka when not attacked by zombies). I think this is a testament to not only the writing of the film, but also the actors as they managed to imbue depth in them with only a few minutes of screen time.
Supporting the writing and acting, was the directing and cinamatography. I’m not familiar with Yeon Sang-Ho (the director) or his work. However, I quite enjoyed his filming. He let the story and action take centre, instead of trying to show off various camera angles and/or be extremely creative. I enjoyed it because it allowed the viewer to enjoy the movie without getting distracted. The violence scenes were also directed quite well. Well actually, they were standard, nothing new. But again, it’s not a bad thing because it allowed the story and actors to take centre stage. And finally, cinamatography was fantastic. There were a few scenes wherein the train passed through tunnels, thereby darkening the train compartments. If you’ve been a long time reader, you probably know just how much I hate badly lit/ too dark films. To my happiness, the darkness scenes were lit just enough for viewers to see what was going on. In other words, it was top notch in terms of technical production as well.
My rating: watch it to enjoy a survival flick with the feeling of real danger and loss and be prepared to be blown away.