Film Review: Train to Busan

Director: Yeon Sang-Ho. 

Cast: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Choi Woo-sik, An So-hee, Kim Eui-sung, Kim Su-an.  South Korea. 118 mins. 29 October 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Zombies are the great Swiss Army knife of horror cinema: they can be, and have been, dropped into almost any scenario you could think of. The shuffling, personality-less masses are a great blank slate to project whatever allegory you want on to them. So it is no surprise to see that Korean director Yeon Sang-Ho’s new thriller, Train to Busan, sees the hordes of the undead placed aboard a speeding commuter train during a zombie outbreak in contemporary South Korea. 

This film went down well at its Cannes 2016 Midnight Movie screening, and its easy to see why. Instead of just lazily dropping a bunch of shuffling creatures onto a train and letting the blood fly, Yeon Sang-Ho seems to have actually put some thought into how to use the train’s tight confines, and the fact that it is a high speed moving object stuck on one track, to create tension. These zombies also run, for one thing, which drastically reduces the response time the largely hapless and mismatched group of computers have to react. So beyond cramming into the tiny toilet cubicles to avoid the sniffing zombies and struggling to find ways to block the hordes off from carriages when none of the doors lock, the passengers also have to exploit the train’s interior in more imaginative ways, including crawling in the luggage racks to avoid particularly dangerous carriages.

As befits a film set on a rapid commuter train, the pace rarely lets up. But despite there being plenty of action (including some CGI-assisted ‘horde’ sequences that recall the more effective moments from World War Z, which also showcased running zombies), the film also works in some pertinent social commentary: as certain first class carriages dominated by the wealthy 1% start to cut themselves off from the rest of the train so as to refuse admittance to those they fear are infected. The central relationship between the main characters - divorced, work-addicted fund manager Seok-woo (Yoo Gong)- and his cute, deadpanning daughter could have felt tacked on, but it actually packs quite a lot of emotional heft too. The film walks back and forth over the line between black comedy (much of the laughs are delivered by co-star Dong-seok Ma, who plays the laconic but surprisingly badass zombie-basher Sang Hwa) and high-wire terror, but it plays both cards very effectively. Get aboard this “Snowpiercer with zombies” express special as soon as possible!

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.