Well, I couldn’t have picked a more appropriate film for the current times, could I?
There I was, watching a virus spread through the population, causing panic and hysteria, then I turned off the news, and put on Train To Busan instead.
Entirely obvious jokes aside, I had picked up Train To Busan as a recommendation from my podcast co-host, Angel, who is currently on a mission to turn me into just as big a Korea fanboy as they are, after seeing Parasite earlier in the year, I could see a lot I liked about the Korean film scene and wanted to know more, and this is one of the two films I’ve picked up to educate myself further on the countries recent cinematic output. (We’ll be talking Korea in more detail on next months podcast.)
You may have inferred from the completely hilarious second paragraph that there may be a fair few similarities between this film and the current situation we all find ourselves in, in that this film is about a virus outbreak and the attempts to contain it, but besides these details, there are very few real similarities.
Train To Busan tells the story of a work-focused, and somewhat neglectful, father Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) as they board a train bound for the Korean city of Busan to visit Su-an’s mother. Things swiftly take a turn for the worse as a virus quickly begins to spread throughout the country, and one of the infected finds their way onto the train.
So, we’re all very familiar with the ‘zombie apocalypse’ narrative by now, right? It seems to me like we’ve seen every possible incarnation of the plot device, and honestly, I’m usually very wary. I think popular culture badly needs to move on from zombies and find a new threat to face, that being said, however, things do seem to have calmed down a fair bit in recent years, we aren’t at the zombie peak right now, thankfully.
This isn’t to say that interesting things can’t still be done with the shuffling monstrosities, I love Shaun of the Dead, like seemingly everyone else, and I was also very absorbed by the Telltale Games The Walking Dead series, as that focused on the people at the heart of the apocalypse and not necessarily on the monsters themselves.
Train To Busan is best categorised as an action/horror film, with the emphasis on action rather than horror. Its main horror styling is that of body-horror, the contorting of limbs and visceral sound of snapping bones that feel so at home in Eastern horror, although, typically more in Japan than Korea.
I have said before that my favourite kind of horror film is the subtle horror film, where the less you see of the threat the better it is, as your mind has to do the work for you, well Train To Busan is on the opposite end of the scale when it comes to this principle, being pretty much relentless as soon as the threat is established. This also works as a tactic, as long as the plot paces itself. If you throw constant loud, obvious horror at people, we’ll get bored of what we’re seeing and it loses its effectiveness.
Busan does not have this problem, it is paced tremendously, striking a perfect balance between quiet unease and outright, frenzied panic; and it is those moments of quiet that draw the panic into greater focus, as we spend time with the characters and their interactions, it allows our brain to get sufficient downtime before leaping straight back into running from zombie hordes.
To this end, the horde themselves are incredibly effective antagonists, multiplying and swarming at such a pace that makes them impossible to predict, the transformation from corpse to a zombie is so fast that the swarm is continuously growing, adding more and more people swiftly and effectively.
That being said, the effects used to portray such a large and frenzied mass of bodies is at times a bit ropey, revealing its low-budget roots, but not in a big enough way to take away from the spectacle, as these effects are only employed sparingly, I get the impression that a lot of the horde were indeed real extras, and their sheer numbers are intimidating alone.
My earlier comparison to Telltale’s Walking Dead games was not made idly. At the heart of those games was an organic, emotional connection between people, and that’s where I see the most common ground with this film. We are shown different perspectives of the day from different characters, all aboard the train, and all in different circumstances.
The audiences natural response from there is to try and figure out how all these stories interlink, and how they’ll grow, and its narrative choices did catch me off-guard on more than a few occasions.
I, like me, you’re the kind of person who likes to predict who will die in a horror movie, you’ll find yourself wrong-footed on a few occasions, but not before we grow to admire the characters, and each of them can go through an arc; it really is a masterclass on how to write for numerous characters in a short space of time, as we are introduced to all the key players seemingly at random, but by the end, they’re all seamlessly three-dimensional characters, thanks to the outstanding script and performances.
All of the actors involved are unknown to me, as I would expect from a foreign production, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t impressed by what I saw. Kim Su-an is the emotional heart of the film, trying to change her seemingly selfish father. A lot of the film is viewed through her perspective, in fact, her curiosity puts her in danger a few times, but her kindness and heart drive the narrative along.
Another character arc I enjoyed was the relationship between Su-an’s father Seok-woo and Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) an expectant father who views Seok-woo with contempt in the beginning, but throughout their ordeal, the men gain mutual respect for each other, and like everything else in this film, it is perfectly paced.
All of these relationships have conclusive, and frequently heartbreaking endings, leaving to the kind of bittersweet finale that many directors shy away from. Brave in its determination to not have an entirely positive, or entirely negative, ending, it’s the kind of closing to a film that really sticks with you, it’s not exactly satisfying or uplifting, but it shows a glimmer of hope at the end of a horrendous ordeal for these characters.
To conclude then, Train To Busan is a brilliantly-paced and sublimely intense film, cranking up the action at just the right moments, but also knowing when the pace needs to be slowed for maximum effectiveness, it’s also helped by emotionally-driven performances and frenetic direction that makes it stand out from the majority of its Western peers, keeping enough of its own Korean identity while also remaining accessible to foreign viewers too, it’s an experience sure to please any film fan worldwide.