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Having this year completed both an animated feature (Seoul Station) and now this, live-action Train to Busan (Bu-San-Haeng), director Yeon Sang-ho has instantly transformed himself into Korea’s go-to-guy for zombie movies. Showing out of competition in Cannes as a midnight thrill ride, Yeon’s first non-animated feature holds up as a solid effort, one that marbles together the gore, paranoia and low-key social critique that are baked into the DNA of the walking dead sub-genre.
Since the film’s class allegory largely unfolds within the claustrophobic confines of a high-speed train, comparisons will inevitably be made with Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer. But the vibe here, executed with technical polish but with more lo-fi intimacy than the likes of World War Z, is actually closer to classic zombie fare, especially OG classics like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). On the other hand, fans of Yeon’s brutally honest examination of bullying, The King of Pigs, may feel his transition here is not just one from animation to live-action but also from the more interesting fringes of independent filmmaking to the mainstream.
Train to Busan’s opening act, set in Seoul, establishes with simple brushstrokes the major characters, laying particular emphasis on divorced self-absorbed uber-rich fund manager Seok-woo (pin-up Gong Yoo, Silenced) and his daughter Su-an (Coin Locker Girl’s Kim Su-an, who’s truly phenomenal here).
For reasons that remain unexplained, Seok-woo has custody of Su-an, but the remarkably unspoiled tot’s only birthday wish this year is to see her mother in Busan. The 270-mile train journey there should only take a little over an hour on Korea’s extremely efficient, high-speed rail network (getting a massive product placement boost here, even if some things do go wrong later on), and thereafter the film rather pleasing runs in real time.
As Seok-woo and Su-an take their seats, assorted supporting characters are introduced. Rough-spoken but good-hearted working-class bruiser Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) is traveling with his pretty wife Sung-kyung (Jung Yu-mi, also from Silenced), a character who is barely developed despite her centrality to the plot. (Yeon isn’t great in general with female characters). Elsewhere on the train, teenage baseball star Young-guk (Choi Woo-sik) and cheerleader Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee) are flirting, and bus-company executive Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung) is putting on a display of haughtiness that will have audiences rooting for a cruel comeuppance for him later.
Like any other disaster or apocalypse film, the fun part is waiting to see who’s going to get eaten or zombified, and how. The brisk running time allows for just enough build up for viewers to establish betting pools on who’s going to die nobly saving others. This strain of zombie virus conveniently has a short delay time before it kicks in, allowing for final urgent screams of “save yourself!” before the pallor and pronounced veins break out.
Although visual effects have clearly been deployed for the big set pieces — zombie hoards breaking through train-station concourse’s glass doors at mid-point, and a human chain of undead clinging to a speeding locomotive at the climax — there are enough close-ups to persuade viewers that Yeon and his crew have used old-school special effects, stunt people and makeup artists to enhance the realism. Furthermore, as one might expect from a director who started out as a visual artist, the film establishes spatial relationships exceptionally well, so that it’s always clear where characters are in relation to each other. If the secret aim of Train to Busan was to leave a calling card, this will certainly impress backers with bigger budgets.
Production companies: A Next Entertainment World presentation of a Redpeter Film production
Cast: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Choi Woo-sik, Ahn So-hee, Kim Eui-sung, Kim Su-an
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Screenwriter: Park Joo-suk
Producer: Lee Dong
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Lee Hyung-deok
Production designer: Lee Mok-won
Costume designer: Kwon Yoo-jin, Rim Seung-hee
Music: Jang Young-gyu
Visual effects supervisor: Jung Hwang-su
Sales: Contents Panda
No rating, 118 minutes
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