Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Train to Busan - review

2016 (South Korea)

Contains mild spoilers. 

Hype always makes me nervous. It raises expectations and thus investment; and it raises the bar such that any wrong step can feel like betrayal. It also makes it harder to be impartial as the mob has already ruled, and laid a pejorative marker against any who might disagree. It makes it hard insomuch that one doesn't just want to be seen going along with the herd, and the herd are very much on the side of Director Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan. Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead called it the "best zombie movie I've seen in forever", and professional accolades and plaudits have been thrown by dozen. Well hands up; sometimes the herd can be right. I'll say upfront, Train to Busan, is arguably one of, if not the, best and most complete zombie film ever made.

Twenty or so minutes in I could feel it. There's a moment near the start of every great disaster movie, before the horror, action and actual catastrophe, where all the trepidation, anxiety, fear and excitement you know is soon to come is tantalisingly tangible. It's like being seated on a roller-coaster, slowly rising up towards the first hundred-mile-an-hour gut-wrenching plummet that you know is coming, yet can do nothing to stop. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and daughter Soo-An (Kim Su-an) have boarded the early train for Busan, some 453km away. Fleeting and fragmented phone calls and news flashes point to some greater and more expansive violence and confusion in the inner cities. And a lone very poorly woman stumbles quickly onto the train unbeknown to the guards and crew. It's as near a perfect application of the genre; the passengers embark and settle down for the long haul, and it's impossible not to lean forward with sweaty palms, heart racing and a grin from ear to ear. It's the zombie trope, but Sang-ho proves why tropes are tropes; if done properly they can be beautiful and timeless.

Then it begins. To say the ride is relentless would be putting it mildly. One becomes two, then three, four, and before anyone has any clue, the train is a claustrophobic maelstrom of screaming, running and blood. The following hour and forty is a barrage to the senses; perfectly paced, unremitting in its savagery and able to totally subsume the viewer so that there's a coming together to share each high and low as one. It's as finely crafted a zombie experience as I can recall. The train is the perfect vessel to constrain the tension and the roller-coaster is the perfect analogy. There's no escape, no  getting off; just helpless surrender to the ride ahead.

The few confused and desperate passengers that survived the initial onslaught are shaken and desperate, yet as a disaster movie and into the chaos, the experience is ultimately only as good as how they respond. An action horror spectacular it is, but Train to Busan is also an emotional narrative on good vs evil, of self-serving vs self-sacrifice. The zombies are at the end of the day quite neutral; they're automated killing machines driven entirely by instinct to spread the infection and never actually conscious and therefore responsible for their actions. To call them evil would be to call piranhas evil; they're nippy little shits yes, but they're just doing what they're designed to do. 

It's the passengers and the conscious decisions they choose to make in reaction that defines, in this instance, morality. This self-serving; looking after oneself at the expense of all others, versus, sacrificing oneself, or putting oneself in harm's way is the recurrent theme throughout the feature. It's deliberate that Seok-woo has a career that's perceived as selfish and his charge, Soo-An, is a small girl with a huge heart. It's also no coincidence one of his first decisions is whether to pull shut a door guaranteeing the safety of his daughter, or risk everything to let Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a working man who ultimately comes to be Seok-woo's moral gauge, and pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi) through. His becomes a journey of discovery, of redemption, and the narrative an overarching exploration contrasting the best and worst of what it is to be human. 

Impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery and World War Z should be proud that Train to Busan has adopted their vision of the zombie and, other than their own origin stories, I could easily see each sitting comfortably in the others universe. Both share the upgraded 28 Days Later zombie for velocity and ferocity. Both share the rather demonic and inhuman veined appearance, and irregular and violently fitful movement model. And both imply the same viral contagion, where it's all about the infection wanting to spread with as much virulence as possible and not actually about anyone eating anyone else. Brad Pitt may have spent a purported $190m, but Sang-ho with his $10m easily keeps up, and watching each and every new vicious and rabid frenzy of anger and teeth scream to life, ready to join the hunt, is always exhilarating, and never gets old.

I don't recall a movie, never mind a niche zombie one, that so consistently got so much right. An action spectacular, a tense disaster drama, a human tragedy; it convinces on all fronts. Yet still at heart it's a fearless zombie film, unashamed to wear the crazy undead gnasher loud and proud, front and central. Yeon Sang-ho has given the tiring genre a more than welcome shot in the arm with a visual and audio feast that, as said, is just about as good as you're going to get. And yet for all these plaudits, it will be the friends you've made, and the friends you've lost, that you'll mostly recall when thinking about it. It is complete and masterful storytelling that excels in all areas and a privilege to watch, 10/10.



  1. Have to agree, great film. I watched Seoul Station last night, which is an animated prequel to this. Not as visceral - its animated after-all - but some great character stories running through it. Well worth a watch also (and on Amazon Prime Video at the moment)

    1. I watched the trailer for it off the DVD and didn't know it was animated; which shows how out the loop I've been with all the breaks. Cheers though, I'll add it to the list, which if you'd have thought was getting smaller after 250+ films you'd be mistaken, lol.