PUBLISHED 24 AUG 2017
IN director Yeon Sang-Ho’s live action debut, the commonplace concept of zombies is fused with the claustrophobic nature of a passenger train to create the memorable and quite literal thrill ride, TRAIN TO BUSAN. It is easy to be a cynic and decry an over-saturation of the undead Romero staple, but TRAIN TO BUSAN offers a thoroughly engaging and inventive story within a seemingly exhausted genre.
The core narrative focuses on inattentive father and cold-hearted businessman Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo) as he embarks on a train journey to Busan with his daughter (Kim Su-An) to fulfil her birthday wish of visiting her mother. Before the train can set off, a strange woman bearing an unusual injury climbs aboard and thus the catalyst for infection begins. However, the story, while effective and supported by strong acting and emotion, is not what draws the audience in. It is Sang-Ho’s aptitude for compelling thrills and impactful action that is truly engaging as he expertly utilises moments of downtime, allowing the main cast space to develop despite the chaos of a zombie infected train.
There is a recurring cycle of action and inaction; sequences of our protagonist enduring hectic situations in one train carriage, followed closely by safe time for reflection in the next one. Something that separates TRAIN TO BUSAN from other more recent zombie films is the very controlled sense of isolation achieved from taking place on a moving vehicle. Apart from a few rare glimpses, the outside world and its state is largely up for speculation, giving a strong sense of uncertainty to both the passengers and the viewer.
At face value, a moving train is a seemingly promising hideaway but ultimately leaves very little in the way of outside help, and even less in terms of protection from the undead passengers. This scenario elevates action moments rather powerfully and without the convenience of sharp blades or firearms; the characters need to rely on blunt objects and their bare fists. Rarely does a zombie go down for good and the most that can be achieved is pushing them away to gain a precious few seconds to move. Merely the sight of an undead evokes clear horror in the eyes of our characters and an ever-present sense of inferiority is felt throughout the film. Every single zombie becomes genuinely terrifying simply through the lack of effective counter measures, substantially raising the stakes.
The strong premise, powerful direction and clever action sequences all accumulate to provide a watch that, while not exactly ground-breaking, ends up being one of the most pleasant surprises of 2016. It is a reminder that even in the most saturated of concepts, creativity is far from scarce. Thus, it presents a promising gateway to South Korean cinema and a whole new range of titles that many may otherwise miss.
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