Train to Busan Review
Train to Busan / Busanhaeng (2016) Film Review, a movie directed by Yeon Sang-ho, and starring Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Choi Woo-sik, Jeong Yu-mi, and Sohee.
Train to Busan is Korea’s summer blockbuster zombie thriller. Director Yeon Sang-ho’s foray into live action cinema entertains, but doesn’t go off the rails.
Train to Busan is a Korean zombie thriller directed by Yeon Sang-ho and starring Gong Yoo as Seok-woo, a workaholic dad who’s trying to rebuild a relationship with his school-age daughter. Currently, the film is already one of the highest-grossing movies in the history of Korean cinema. It has broken numerous Korean box office records and has been seen by over 10 million people at this point in time.
The film is engaging and entertaining with only a few hiccups along the way. Some of the dramatic turns were genuinely unexpected, which is increasingly rare in films in the zombie genre. Another big surprise about this film is its emotional power. Despite the film’s somewhat archetypal cast of characters, there are several real and powerful moments between the people we meet in the film. In any other context, some of the film’s more tender moments could be seen as cheap or emotionally manipulative. Somehow, because what of Train to Busan is, as an artistic work, these moments are surprisingly successful, and might even draw a few tears.
Yeon Sang-ho’s background in animation comes through obviously in this film. From the narrative pacing to the film’s dramatic arcs, Train to Busan has the same kind of energy as a feature-length anime drama film. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, because in spite of the fast pace it provides, the anime-esque qualities of this film come through in a few ways that are detrimental to its overall artistic quality.
One of the biggest problems with the film its its villain, Young-suk, a logistics manager who puts his own interests over others at all costs. The role is portrayed well by Kim Eui-sung, but as a character, Young-suk is cartoonishly evil. Despite the excellent acting from the cast of Train to Busan, most of the characters feel like carboard cutouts, but Young-suk’s one-note role goes to a place that interferes with the suspension of disbelief that is critical to maintain focus this type of film. A great villain is a character who can almost convince you that they’re right. Young-suk is just an asshole who literally just picks up people and throws them at at zombies for a significant portion of the film.
Another issue is that there’s a recurring made-for-TV vibe that appears in several different areas of the film. Train to Busan‘s score is tinny and overwrought with synthetic violins. Some of the special effects are on the border of bad and cheesy. One significant problem is how fake the blood looked in some scenes. Orange-y Halloween blood is sometimes okay in comedic or grindhouse-style horror films, but Train to Busan takes itself too seriously for the cheap effects to be acceptable.
Also, there are moments in the film that don’t seem to reach their full narrative potential. For example, there’s a scene in which Yong-guk, a teenage baseball player, portrayed by Choi Woo-shik, has to make the tough decision between fighting off his now undead teammates, or saving the lives of his new friends. A Deus ex machina moment saves him from making a tough decision, and the chance for character growth is lost.
The only person in Train to Busan who has any significant changes in his character arc is the protagonist, Seok-woo. Even then, the film’s central theme of the importance of selflessness and caring for the people in your life over yourself is clumsy and heavy-handed. By the fourteenth or fifteenth time that a character is making an unrealistic and blatantly selfish decision, while announcing their actions directly to an entire room of people, your eyes will have rolled out of the back of your head.
Everyone except for Seok-woo seems stagnant in their change and growth throughout the film. Despite being a little too reliant on archetypes, the film gives us an interesting mix of characters. The problem is that all of them seem only to exist to prop up Seok-woo. This is especially an issue in the film’s female characters, who are somehow even less developed than their male counterparts.
Still, the film does exceed in carrying one subtle and less obvious theme of class prejudice. A convulsing schoolgirl staggering through a train car is largely ignored, while a homeless man cowering in the train’s bathroom is instantly treated as an object of disgust by everyone except Seok-woo’s daughter, Su-an. It seems that Su-an, portrayed by ten-year-old actress Kim Su-an, represents the film’s moral heart. This might be why her character falls a little flat. Su-an’s purpose seems to be exclusively to carry the main theme of selflessness throughout the film. When watching Train to Busan, fans of the Telltale Games Walking Dead series might initially see some parallels between Su-an and Clementine. However, the key difference between these two characters is that where Clementine grows and learns from her experiences, Su-an exists as a tool to preach to the audience about the evils of selfish actions.
Putting all of this criticism aside, Train to Busan is still an enjoyable film. The pacing at the beginning is a little slow, but other than that, there’s not one boring moment. Yeon Sang-ho’s story keeps you on your toes, and the turns and twists in the story ramp up the action and the drama. Also, Train to Busan‘s portrayal of zombies has some unique aspects that bring new and interesting elements to the zombie apocalypse trope.
While serious horror fans seeking a genuine scare might want to look elsewhere, if you’re looking for a milder thriller with an emotional center, or if you’re a fan of the types of stories and characters you find in made-for-TV Korean Dramas, you might enjoy Train to Busan.
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