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Simon Read [Celluloid 07.25.16] Republic of Korea zombies horror action thriller

Train to Busan is a superior zombie actioner from South Korea and the first live-action film from director Sang-ho Yeon. The film stars Yoo Gong as Seok, a high-flying business executive who's on a train from Seoul to Busan with his daughter when a mass-outbreak of zombies suddenly hurls the entire country into chaos. Along with his bewildered fellow passengers, Seok hopes to find sanctuary in the city of Busan, which is rumoured to have been spared the worst of the zombie apocalypse. Speeding along the intercity railway and with little communication with the outside world, this motley group need to work together in order to survive, but as each city the train passes through appears overrun with flesh-eating ghouls, tensions begin to rise, and we learn that the real monsters aren't just the undead ones outside.

The first thing to say about Train to Busan is that it's basically pretty good. Yeon pushes the human drama as well as the action and gore, and thanks to a careful balancing act this pays off big time. When compared to your standard 'Zombies on a ... '-type film (Flight of the Living Dead, Dead Cruise, etc), there really is no competition, and even next to Snakes on a Plane (if that film could possibly stand as some kind of watermark), Train to Busan is simply a more intelligent and considerately crafted film. By treating the subject seriously, taking the time to establish characters, and allowing the tension to build slowly before reaching an inevitable and horrific tipping-point, the film becomes something altogether less embarrassing and trashy than its misguided kin.

All of this is not to say that the film is without fault. The various subplots are cliched - Seok's need to reconnect with his estranged daughter is a well-worn trope - and the characters are typical of the genre, such as the married couple expecting a baby, the unscrupulous, sleazy businessman, the high school sports team, and (of course) two bickering old women. What makes this fairly standard set-up work is probably the conviction with which the actors play their roles, and the fact that, once things get started, we're on such a rollercoaster ride that it doesn't seem to matter. In a lesser film all this would feel too routine, too basic, but Train to Busan is entertaining enough that we really don't mind. Such is the focus on the characters and the relationships which develop between them during the crisis, that there are several moments of genuinely moving pathos which I would not have expected from this kind of flick.

The action sequences are frequent and uniformly well choreographed. From on-board scuffles with rogue zombies, to all out bloodbaths and spectacular train smashes, the film has a slick, high-end feel to it, and despite some of the CGI touch-ups looking a tad obvious, the film could easily pass as mainstream multiplex entertainment (no doubt the producers' intentions as far as the Korean market goes). The film's focus on practical, on-screen effects is also highly admirable - this makes the danger feel that much more immediate and the resulting gore brutally satisfying.

What stood out for me however were the undead themselves. While these zombies run and jump, dislocating limbs like evil rabid puppets and appearing superficially similar to those with which we're familiar from World War Z or Dawn of the Dead '04, (or Zombie Flesh Eaters 2) their physical movements and actions feel as though they contain a real sense of heft and gravity which is absent from other recent 'running zombie' films. That's definitely welcome.

During several intense scenes in which hordes of zombies are chasing our heroes, we're witness to the bizarre spectacle of a zombie 'pile up', in which the sheer number of the undead all running in the same direction results in a kind of cannonball effect, as they simply become one huge wave of moving bodies. It's a cool idea and it feels realistic - or as realistic as one can expect from the zombie genre. Unlike World War Z, in which the undead create wildly improbably structures from their own collective mass, in Train to Busan we get a very good idea of what it might look like when hundreds of infected cannibals are attempting to occupy the same small space on a cramped train.

Much has been made of the film's apparent social commentary, but this didn't strike me as a particularly focused element of the plot. There is a divide between two groups of survivors, one led by a burly, good-hearted strongman (the excellent Dong-seok Ma) and another led by a cowardly Carter Burke-esque businessman, but I'm not convinced that this was a social as much as a moral analysis of humanity - there are innocent people on both sides, unsure of what they're really doing and essentially just following their instincts. Nevertheless, it works fairly well in a, 'what would I do?' type way, and in setting up at least one good old-fashioned villain.

The film is two hours long and it does suffer slightly from an extended third act. A genre work like this is usually best left at 90 minutes, and during the rather drawn-out climactic set-piece one does begin to wish the story would hurry itself towards a conclusion - but stick with it and there's a final scene which rewards viewers' investment. The film bookends itself with an unexpectedly touching finale which ties things together rather nicely.

Train to Busan is a fun ride. It's tense, gory and at times pretty spectacular, and while there isn't a whole lot going on under the surface, the attention given to the human characters lends it an air of substance too often missing from modern zombie horror. Couple this with inventive and suspenseful set-pieces, good performances across the board, and impressive direction from Yeon, and it's a very easy film to recommend for the jaded zombie fan.

Train to Busan is currently playing selected markets and expanding on July 29.

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JC (6 years ago) Reply

Saw this recently and although I'm not a big zombie fan I enjoyed this quite a bit. Got better as it went along.

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