Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Train to Busan (2016)

Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Notable Cast: Gong Yoo, Kim Su-an, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Choi Woo-shik, Sohee, Kim Eui-sung, Kim Chang-hwan, Jang Hyeok-jin, Kim Yool-ho

Earlier this year I was having a discussion with a fellow writer about the state of South Korean cinema with a focus on genre film making. I criticized the industry for its lacking attempts at crafting and supporting talent in genres other than thrillers and dramas. At this point though, I’m starting to think I may have spoken too soon. While South Korea still seemingly focuses on thrillers and dramas as the main staple of its entertainment industry (and it does them well, might I add,) they also released two of the best horror films of the year including The Wailing and the focus of this review, Train to Busan. Sure, horror has never been a huge staple for the industry outside of the serial killer focused thriller styled ones (see Bedevilled or I Saw the Devil), but their backing of a zombie film has me impressed. Even more impressive, Train to Busan is successful at crafting a riveting and emotionally charged film that also features hordes of the undead. Train to Busan is a non-stop ride of thrills, kills, and chemical spills that hits all the right horror themed aspects while executing a film that features a strong human element. Zombie films might be a dime a dozen at this time, but Train to Busan is worth a whole lot more than that.

A young father (Gong Yoo) has been working too much lately and his job is not the most morally fulfilling. His marriage is collapsing and his daughter (Kim Su-an) has a pretty vast disconnect from him. On her birthday, she requests to take the train to Busan to see her mother and he opens up his schedule to make sure he can take it with her, but this train ride might run into a few complications - including a vicious zombie apocalypse.

It's the end of the world as we know it...
The quality of a horror film heavily relies on balancing entertainment, execution, and insight. It’s fortunate that Train to Busan finds an even balance of all of these things to keep it on the rails Director Yeon Sang-ho, in his first live action debut, knows how to get things to move along swiftly and the pacing of this film is effectively done making its two hour run time feel like minutes once an audience sits into the groove and taps into the film’s balance. As a zombie film, it’s highly entertaining and it hits all the right marks. Like many of the great zombie films that have come before, Train to Busan utilizes elements of isolation, paranoia, and timing to really craft some strong horror set pieces even if they can occasionally be seen as predictable. The film pulls away from exorbitant amounts gore and instead focusing on tempo, sound, and visuals to create horrific images. Seeing how the zombies move in inhuman ways and piling up on one another, is something that World War Z tried to cartoonish effect, but Train to Busan nails the concept crafting faster and almost insect like moments as they swarm our survivors on the train. The use of the smaller compartments of a train make for some unique and suffocating circumstances that feel fresh for a zombie film and the genuine reaction from the characters give the film weight to build its horror pieces on. This is easily one of the best zombie films in the last handful of years and considering the saturation of that subgenre, that’s a pretty strong statement.

From there the execution and insight of the film gives the audience something to care about when it comes to the characters. The film starts off by very much painting certain characters as good, bad, dumb, smart, slaughter fodder (the usual for horror films with ensemble casts), but it attempts to give them some subtle depth too. It builds the handful of main characters in deeper and more shaded tones that gives them a much more humane and emotional quality. It doesn’t have a lot of time to do it with everyone, this is an ensemble cast in a two-hour film, but what little it has works. It might still be rather predictable about who will die and who will survive overall and occasionally I wanted the main character to have a slightly more dramatic arc, but that doesn’t mean their survival/deaths are not impactful for the audience when they happen. The performances are all strong, although Ma Dong-seok seemingly steals every scene as a tough guy out to protect his pregnant wife, but it’s more or less the pacing and writing that gives the film its heart for the audience to latch onto. The film does go about giving a bit of social commentary as it maneuvers around its zombie themed script of learning to survive and overcome the challenges presented by its setting. It has some criticism of capitalism and a bit of xenophobia seep through the writing and the film could have done a bit more to emphasize these as actual plot progressions rather than character traits to make it more impactful, but the fact that they are even there elevates the film above many of its zombie cinema peers so it does get some praise for that.

...and I feel fine.
Train to Busan is a strong contender for one of the best horror films of the year and easily comes down as one of the best zombie films in the last ten years for sticking to the tropes and executing them at a higher level. At times I wanted the film to flesh out its artsy pieces of social commentary and occasionally the film feels a bit too polished as it lacks a bit of grit to ground it further in reality, but it’s hard to deny how impressive this debut is for the director. It’s heartfelt with its characters, it paints a complex series of events for being mostly isolated to a train, and the zombie effects and scares are worthy to be ranked as some of the best for modern zombie films. Horror fans owe it to themselves to experience a trip into what a great modern zombie film looks like with Train to Busan as this one keeps rolling well after the credits have ended.

Now if only the director’s animated zombie film could find its way to a US release, then things would perfectly align. At this point though, I might have to import it as I enjoyed Train to Busan very much.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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