Cannes Hidden Gem: South Korean Animator Makes Apocalyptic Live-Action Debut With 'Train to Busan'
Yeon Sang-ho, who drew raves for his Cannes title 'King of Pigs,' returns to the Croisette with a midnight screening of his new zombie thriller.
Though South Korea has seen plenty of movies based on "webtoons," or online comic strips, never before has an animated feature received a live-action sequel. That’s exactly what South Korean animator Yeon Sang-ho, 38, is bringing to Cannes, where his apocalyptic thriller Train to Busan will receive a midnight screening on May 13.
The film is a sequel to Yeon’s animated feature Seoul Station, which opens in South Korea in August. In a strange twist of fate, Train to Busan actually will hit theaters in July, one month before Seoul Station. That’s right: Train to Busan is a live-action sequel to an animated film that hasn’t even been released yet.
So how did this happen? It all started when Kim Woo-taek, CEO of South Korean distributor Next Entertainment World, saw an early cut of Seoul Station and was so impressed that he asked Yeon if he’d be interested in making a live-action version of the film. Despite the fact that he had never worked in any medium outside of animation, Yeon jumped at the chance — with one caveat: He wanted to make a sequel.
"I don’t differentiate between animation and live-action movies," says Yeon. "They’re all movies to me. So when [Kim] suggested that we do a live-action version of Seoul Station, I thought it would be redundant for the same director to make two versions of the same movie. So I suggested doing a sequel, but because of the release date, the original [animated] film will now be a prequel."
Both films look at the aftermath of a virus that sweeps through Seoul, turning average citizens into zombies. While Seoul looks at what happens inside a train station, Busan exclusively focuses on the passengers of a bullet train.
Like his previous film in Cannes, the animated Directors’ Fortnight entry King of Pigs — an unsettling look at the lifelong effects of bullying and class distinctions in South Korea — Train to Busan does not shy away from humanity’s darker impulses. "It zooms in on the psychology of people dealing with a crisis," he says. "It becomes very personal, and some normal-looking people turn into monsters."
Yeon, who considers Hayao Miyazaki a key influence, is credited with pushing the boundaries of the Korean animation industry, where successful franchises largely have been limited to TV serials for children. Given his background in animated fare, Yeon says he never thought he’d make a movie as commercial as Train to Busan. But making the transition to live-action filmmaking is something he has come to embrace.
"I never imagined I’d be bringing a mainstream Korean film to Cannes," says Yeon. "But getting into live-action cinema was something I’ve had in mind for a while, because so many people, from filmmakers to online commentators, have been telling me I should ever since King of Pigs."