Korean film watchers might have spotted the news that zombie film Train to Busan screamed past the 10 million domestic tickets mark on Sunday, becoming the fourteenth Korean film to do so, ever. From all accounts, it seems to have been a bit of an unexpected hit, too: the zombie genre hasn’t been explored (even done to death?) in South Korea as it has in Hollywood, and it’s the first live action film from director Yeon Sang-ho, whose previous outings have been the low-budget, ferocious animated features The King of Pigs and The Fake.
In Train to Busan, director Yeon swaps out the marginalised characters of his first two films for a slice of mainstream South Korea: the passengers on a bullet train from Seoul to seaside Busan. Our protagonist is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a workaholic fund manager and almost completely absent father, who is accompanying his precocious daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) to visit her mother — she’s upped sticks and moved to Busan. As they’re leaving home to catch the train, odd things are happening: a complex deal Seok-woo is putting together at work is going pear-shaped and, for some reason, fire engines are screaming across the city, but no matter: they’ve got a train to catch.
Other passengers are boarding the train too: a couple in identical hiking gear, two older elegantly dressed ladies, a husband and his very pregnant wife, a high school baseball team and their single cheerleader, a gaggle of self-important businessmen. Oh, and there’s one other: a young woman with a nasty-looking gash on her leg. But no-one’s paying her condition any attention: they’re more worried about the homeless man (Choi Gwi-hwa) who’s in one of the bathrooms. That’ll change shortly.
Train to Busan is solid commercial action/horror fare that works on a number of levels, starting with the spectacle that any genre fan demands. It’s not long before the film is packed with growling, snapping fiends, their ordinary antecedents (business suits, baseball uniforms) hanging off them as they clamber toward the dwindling ranks of the uninfected. It’s also a more enclosed survival horror pic than many: the world of the film contracts to the close confines of the train, and news reports of the outside world paint a picture of burning cityscapes under martial law. As in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the train is filled with a miniature version of society — less literal this time — and director Seon deploys the same skewering we saw in his earlier films to its comfortable middle class and blowhard businessmen.
It’s also a drama, firstly about Seok-woo (seemingly fund manager first and father second) and his daughter Su-an, who seems to have been raised largely by her grandmother and mother. Concern for Su-an drives Seok-woo to overcome his selfish instincts, and his character is contrasted against devoted father-to-be Sang-hwa (played by Korean-American actor Ma Dong-seok) — not a fancily-dressed businessman, but gruffly honest and driven to protect his wife (Jung Yu-mi) at all costs. There is a budding teen romance in the mix as well, between baseball player Young-guk (Choi Woo-shik) and cheerleader Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee).
But what makes the film work so well for me are its propulsive pace, which really ratchets up as the train gets underway, and director Seon and DP Lee Hyung-deok’s eye for detail when shooting their shambling monsters. The film is full of lovely little shots that feel like they share animation’s ability to convey exaggerated motion: a bloodied extra splats into a window in the background of a dramatic shot; a great pile of people overwhelms a plate glass window and tumbles outwards in a mountain of splayed arms and legs; a creature clambers to its feet contorted into a configuration that would make Regan from The Exorcist proud.
It may not escape its genre — and I don’t think it has to — but Train to Busan is a lovingly-crafted commercial thriller worth every bit of the attention it is getting. Shamble towards the ticket window while it’s in cinemas!
Train to Busan is screening at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (on 10 and 12 August 2016), at the Korean Film Festival (KOFFIA) around the country, and in general release at selected cinemas around Australia as well from this Thursday, August 11. See cinema websites or distributor CineAsia’s Facebook page for more details!