REVIEW: 부산행 [Busanhaeng] [Train to Busan] [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 118 minutes | Release Date: July 20th, 2016 (South Korea)
Studio: NEW / Well Go USA Entertainment
Director(s): Sang-ho Yeon
Writer(s): Sang-ho Yeon

“Until we meet again”

There’s an abundance of sentimentality in Sang-ho Yeon‘s 부산행 [Busanhaeng] [Train to Busan], a trait you don’t necessarily attribute to a zombie action thriller. That’s not to say “The Walking Dead” doesn’t touch upon familial relationships and catharsis too, but the level of personal and emotional growth on display in these two-hours is somewhat astounding. Zombies wreaking havoc hardly prove the main impetus to the story as they originate in the fringes. Our focus is instead a broken home led by Seok-woo’s (Yoo Gong) fund manager, a man who’s cared more about success than family for too long. Tomorrow’s his daughter Soo-an’s (Soo-an Kim) birthday and all she wants is to spend it with Mom. That fateful one-hour train ride will either save them or condemn them to death.

Yeon is best known for anime thrillers including The King of Pigs and actually released an animated horror also populated by zombies entitled Seoul Station one month after Train to Busan bowed in South Korea. You can see these sensibilities come through his live action debut with its myriad characters possessing stereotypical traits for as much fun as relevance to the journey. This allows him to create a sensitive brute in Sang Hwa’s (Dong-seok Ma) husband protecting his pregnant wife Sung Gyeong (Yu-mi Jeong) with violent fists and super strength allowing him to lift zombies to the ceiling in a fit of rage. It makes teenage power-hitter Young-guk’s (Woo-sik Choi) ability to wield a baseball bat to save cheerleader Jin-hee (Sohee) fit right in with the carnage.

We will eventually know a two-dimensional reason the chaos ignited if only to deliver another three-dimensional punch to the gut of our lead, but until then it’s enough to acknowledge no one is safe. Seok-woo’s hometown appears overrun first—he passes a caravan of emergency vehicles while driving to the station—but if not for one yet-to-be-turned woman who crawled onto a train car to escape the hoard, they may have been spared completely. The chain reaction of this unknown patient zero biting an employee trying to help and so on exponentially enlarges as the virus spreads beyond her car to the next. Soon the train is infested save a lucky thirty-or-so at the far end. With every hopeful stop and violent skirmish, however, that number dwindles fast.

Yeon does a good job supplying a variety of settings considering the claustrophobic conceit. Even the train cars themselves can be differentiated by who’s trapped inside and whether there’s newspaper or fire extinguisher smoke covering the windows. He uses the darkness of tunnels for added fight intrigue and really lets the action embrace its unhinged aesthetic when our heroes—namely Seok-woo, Sang Hwa, and Young-guk while their respective daughter, wife, and girlfriend hole up alongside two elderly sisters and a raving stranger who goes from disturbingly catatonic to pure-of-heart—have their backs against the wall with nothing to lose. You feel locked in the tight quarters with them as cloudy-eyed zombies lunge for their next bite. And Yeon is never afraid to kill if it serves his story.

He’s also not against letting the vilest survivor continue breathing to show the living as a worse adversary than the dead. Eui-sung Kim‘s Yong-suk is a corporate executive with as much ego and self-preservation as disdain for the innocent. This guy’s at eleven for the duration: stealing walkie-talkies from train employees’ hands, impatiently screaming to move without waiting for others in eye-sight, and so focused on escaping that he fails to recognize he could slow down if he shut doors behind him. Yong-suk is pretty much Sang Hwa’s antithesis, two opposite poles of being that Seok-woo ultimately must choose between. This misguided father is on track to become the former, hardened and uncaring for anyone but himself. We hope for Soo-an’s sake he’ll eventually gravitate towards the latter.

So while most strive to stay human, Seok-woo gradually thaws into one. From a man who uses utilitarian logic for self-preservation to one willing to slug another in the face an hour later for doing the same thing, his evolution is the film’s lynchpin. It provides a burgeoning friendship with Sang Hwa—himself an obvious highlight with cult status fandom waiting—and everyman heroics. But just because he gets the extreme highs and lows doesn’t mean the rest are window dressing. The aforementioned older sisters’ relationship epitomizes the duality of grandmother-isms from charitable spoiler to jaded fatigue; Young-guk and Jin-hee’s sweethearts play on the overwrought nature of puppy love; and even the conductor finds room to steal scenes as a consummate captain responsible for every last passenger’s wellbeing.

Train to Busan is first and foremost about these human interactions of love, friendship, and heroism; so don’t let easy comparisons to Snowpiercer confuse you. Yes there’s great action scenes shot up-close-and-personal, but there’s no underlying philosophical ascension through class systems. It concerns intelligent, problem solving citizens reaching for courage within to barrel through mindless monsters before resting until the next wave hits. Yeon is dealing with compassion and empathy rather than entitlement as his “upper crust” acts like lunatics out of fear and insecurity, not power. He also leans on mirrored comparisons to prove that circumstances aren’t excuses. How you let external forces dictate your life is your cross to bear alone. You can protect your daughter by saving others, not by choosing her over them.

I could have done without this theme being augmented by soaring music and tearful exchanges of thanks or goodbye every ten minutes, but emotions run high and I can’t say anyone’s motivations rung false. And while some characters are more cartoonish than others, this color enhances the pulpy comic aspects rather than hinders the melodrama. So go into the adventure knowing it will be sappy and let yourself forgive that sentimentality as a straightforward lesson being provided and not a misstep letting your anticipation down. You’ll still get the hyper-kinetic zombie gore you crave as well as the hubristic comeuppances many survivors deserve. Yeon knows we can simultaneously feel warm and fuzzy inside while being energized by blood splatters and caved-in skulls. Zombie films can have heart too.

courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

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