Train to Busan

Train to Busan (2016) – Slightly overrated, surprisingly fun and right in the feels


At Malevolent Dark, we spend a lot of time looking at the international horror genre. We spent much of that time digging through the proverbial European crates. Admittedly, we need to pan that far wider. Today we take look at a film from much farther East to Korean horror, Train to Busan (2016). Fans hold this film in extremely high regard, so it was inevitable that we would eventually get a look at it. We ran into it on one of our favorite streaming channels Tubi. Surprisingly, Tubi has a wholly respectable catalog of horror fare.

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan adds yet another entry to the densely (if not overladen) zombie genre.

Train to Busan (2016) - Gong Yoo, playing finance manager Seok-Woo, pleads with his daughter to flee
Gong Yoo, playing finance manager Seok-Woo, pleads with his daughter to flee

Zombie Apocalypse on High-Speed Rail

Train to Busan launches straight into a shake-and-bake plot. A young Hedge Fund Manager named Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) struggles to maintain his relationship with his daughter, Su-an. Due to his selfish ways and demanding job, Seok-woo recently divorced from his wife. His young daughter yearns for her mother on her birthday. Seok-woo agrees to accompany her via rail to Busan to see her mother. Shortly after they leave the station, an infected stow-away passes a on a virus that turns its victims into mindless, lightning fast-moving zombies of the 28 Days Later (2000) and World War Z (2013) variety.

Very quickly, the healthy passengers find them themselves trapped between hordes of infected ghouls. As their condition continues to degrade, the passengers become their own worst enemies. Seok-woo, normally self-absorbed, must recalibrate his priorities if he hopes to keep Su-am alive long enough to see her mother again.

Train to Busan (2016) - Yeon Sang-Ho deploys some seriously terrifying zombies in Train to Busan
Yeon Sang-Ho deploys some seriously terrifying zombies in Train to Busan

There’s Nothing (New) To See Here

Form a pure zombie genre perspective, Train to Busan offers little that hasn’t been done before. The model for tweaker zombies had been well established prior to this film. Some may find it pleasing that Yeon Sang-ho’s does cram these zombies into one of the most constraining settings possible. Yeon Sang-ho refuses to offer and nuggets of mythology concerning the virus Recycling old tropes, Yeon Sang-ho resurrects the spirit of George Romero’s Mr. Cooper (Night of the Living Dead) in the form of a business executive that will do anything to save his own hide.

While the zombies offer nothing new to the genre, they still look fantastic as they gyrate in a chaotic yet syncopated fashion. The special effects and make-up remain convincing as the zombies progress through their illness. Again, hundreds of these monsters squeeze into the suffocating confines of a railcar creating a sense of madness and claustrophobia in this a\crazy undead version of Snowpiecer (2013). This just in, Snowpiercer is of Korean origin as well. What is Korea’s hang-up with trains? Seriously, we had no idea.

To be fair, it’s not necessarily a crime to beg, borrow and steal from the genre, but it did affect our initial feelings about the film. Eyes were rolling about half-way through, but then something strange happened. Some semblance of humanity emerged from the characters that upped the emotional stakes significantly. Immediately, the tension rocketed through the roof as the characters became more endearing. Who knew that a zombie flick could hit you right in the feels? It made for quite an emotional arc, but more importantly it impacted the overall viability of the film.

Train to Busan (2016) - Kim Su-An brings unmistakable humanity to the film as Seok-Woo's daughter Su-An
Kim Su-An brings unmistakable humanity to the film as Seok-Woo’s daughter Su-An

High Action, High Stakes

As Train to Busan progresses into the second act, each of the main characters must confront who they are, and the key trait that they share is their self-centered nature. Some would overcome this character flaw, while others double down. This all serves to increase the emotional investment in the characters. In an early conflict, Yoon Sagn-hwa, Ma Dong-seok, and his pregnant wife meet Seok-woo. Immediately Sagn-hwa’s everyman sensibilities clash with Seok-woo’s financial elite world. Likewise, Sagn-hwa could care less if Seok-woo gets eaten alive.

When the men both find themselves isolated from their loved ones, they must work together to fight their way back. As the men increasingly depend on each other to save their themselves and their loved ones, their relationship grows to the point the each is willing to risk his life for the other. Unfortunately, one of them must make that sacrifice. Appreciating Sang-ho’s late character development, the audience feels the pain of that sacrifice.

Sang-ho also triumphs with respect to his ability to create harrowing situations by piling the infected dead upon more infected dead. Scenes with zombies out of an over the rail walkway evoke some of the same shock and awe from World War Z without the audacious overload on the audience’s senses. One scene in particular, the zombies clamor on-top of one another in a bio-hazardous game of king of the hill while the train drags them along the tracks. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying because if they make it on board, everyone dies. These high intensity moments build upon each other until reaching frenzy.

Train to Busan (2016) - Yeon Sang-Ho brings insane scale to his film without jumping the World War Z shark
Yeon Sang-Ho brings insane scale to his film without jumping the World War Z shark

All’s Well That Ends Poorly

The entire situation boils over in what amounts to a predictable ending, which in hind-sight totally predictable predictable. For some reason, Su-an’s sweet song would not let me believe the inevitable, but let’s just say that sacrifices are made. I really can’t say more without spoiling the movie, but I can say that Sang-ho’s investments in the humanity of his characters serves to exact a heavy emotional toll as the film ends.

Train to Busan – An Overstated Triumph

Considering the zeal in which Internet horror-heads place Train to Busan on in their top-10 lists, Malevolent Dark’s opinion comes in a bit more grounded. Train to Busan pleasantly surprises and overcame some early hiccups to become a wildly entertaining film. Ultimately, we did not feel like it changed the game in any meaningful fashion, but it help further cement Korean horror into the  on conversation. We happily dive headlong into these films and will eventually cover Train to Busan’s sequel Peninsula (2020). You don’t have to always be original, but if you are not, you gotta be good. Yeon Sang-ho pulls together enough critical pieces to make his zombie debut worthwhile.

Train to Busan (2016) - Slightly overrated, surprisingly fun and right in the feels - Malevolent Dark
train to busan 1

Director: Yeon Sang-ho

Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33

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