This year has been a great year for Korean cinema. But as talked-about The Wailing and The Handmaiden were, there is something so original yet familiar about Train to Busan. This film by animation master Yeon Sang-ho is not only one of the best of Korean cinema offerings this year, it also marks a significant milestone.
At last, Korean cinema is taking on zombies – albeit a couple of years behind Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon.
There have of course been zombie films in Korea, but none with such a stellar lineup as this. There’s Gong Yoo, Jung Yumi, funnyman Ma Dong-suk, or, Ma-ve- ly (combination of his surname and ‘lovely’ is his nickname in South Korea) and former Wonder Girl, Sohee.
As is the norm with most films of the genre best known for its post-apocalyptic, flesh-eating creatures, yes, the plot is based on staying alive. Don’t worry though, because this locomotive comes complete with additional human drama.
It all begins when a stray passenger who is obviously afflicted with something, manages to jump on board a KTX train bound for Busan. Within minutes, she’s transfigured and the lives of everyone on board are threatened. On board is finance man father Sukwoo (Gong Yoo) who is on his way to Busan with his daughter Sooan (Kim Soo-an) so that she can see her mum on her birthday. Not knowing just what is happening as people get bitten and turn within minutes, Sukwoo must roll up his perfectly starched shirt to kick some zombie butt.
While the relationship between father and daughter is at the heart of this tale, this zombie-infested train comes complete with all sorts, in case father-daughter conflict is not your thing. There is a high school baseball team, a cheerleader played by former Wonder Girls’ Sohee – hello, teenage romance – and soon-to-be parents Sungkyung (Jung Yumi) and Sanghwa (Ma Dong-suk) who are both the unlikeliest and the cutest pairing.
As you can probably guess, survival rate is not high, but with each carriage conquered, the survivors learn more about the zombies, and in turn, more about themselves. Yeon is in his element as he grapples with the notion of what is good and what is evil when all rules go out the window. The lines come fully loaded with these ethical dilemmas with Sukwoo preaching to his daughter, “you don’t need to think of others all the time.”
Sometimes through lines, sometimes through the stereotype characters, Train to Busan examines every strata of society. One character you’ll love is the comical foe with a whole lot of money and a total lack of empathy for others. He’ll throw many a bodies on the train tracks to stay alive, literally. As detestable he is, it’s these minor characters that carry the film through when the connection between the selfish father and his saint-like child loses its effects on the viewers.
It’s been asked before in series like The Walking Dead, but the question that pops up with each fatality is, “how much of your humanity will you give up to stay alive?”
For some, it means you put others between yourself and the zombies because, well, that increases your survival rate by like 3 seconds, right? For others, it means you look out for others, even if you know that you are putting yourself at risk. And is often the case, it’s not the dead but the undead that should be feared!
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Train To Busan made its Australian premiere at the Korean Film Festival (KOFFIA) Sydney. Currently screening at select cinemas.