Korean Zombie Locomotive Action – Train to Busan

It’s Halloween! And to bridge my way into the Korean Film Festival (currently in progress) I had to feature a Korean horror movie. To wrap up my October horror movie binge I watched the international blockbuster Train to Busan [Busanhaeng] (2016), currently available on both SBS On Demand and Netflix.

A chemical leak at a Seoul biotech plant prompts workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) to sell all related stock. It’s his daughter Su-an’s (Kim Su-an) birthday tomorrow so he buys her a Wii on the way home – having forgotten that he’d already given her one for Children’s Day. After watching the video of the school performance he missed, in which Su-an stumbles through two lines of a song before giving up and staring sadly into the camera, he realises how much he’s been neglecting her and agrees to her request to take the train to see her mother in Busan for her birthday. Passing some emergency vehicles en route the next day, they manage to board the train on time – as does a panicked woman with a wounded leg who takes refuge in one of the toilets. As a zombie apocalypse begins to spread out from the Seoul, and infection begins to spread within the train, the dwindling passengers try to survive the journey while hoping that their destination is still safe.

To work as more than just a thrill ride, a film of this type needs a solid core of characters from a variety of backgrounds, a requirement which writer Park Joo-suk amply meets. Ma Dong-seok, who played Bear in The Good the Bad the Weird (2008) and is set to appear as Gilgamesh in The Eternals (2021), plays tough guy Sang-hwa who is married to the heavily pregnant Syeong-keong (Jung yu-mi). Park Myung-sin, who worked with Park Chan-wook on Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005) before appearing in Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother (2009), plays Jong-gil, a reactionary elderly woman whose response to the initial news reports about rioters is that in the old days they would have been “re-educated”. She’s accompanied by her kinder older sister In-gil (Ye Soo-jung). Choi Woo-sik, who was prominently featured in Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja (2017) and Parasite (2019), plays Yong-guk, the shy member of a school baseball team. So-hee Ahn, a member of the South Korean girl group Wonder Girls (2007-2013) before breaking into acting, plays his more popular cheerleader friend Jin-hee. Choi Gwi-hwa plays a homeless man found trembling in a train car muttering about how “everybody’s dead.” Jeong Seok-yong, appearing in Korean Netflix series The Scholar Who Walks the Night (2015) and Black (2017), plays the driver of the train. And Kim Eui-sung (Rampant) plays the executive Choi Do-gab, the obligatory selfish authority figure who can always be relied upon to make the situation worse through his short-sighted desire to save his own skin at any cost.

Yeong Sang-ho, who built his career in animated movies before making his feature debut with Train to Busan, shows a deft touch in the way he parcels out small hints of the approaching disaster in the initial slow build. A truck driver passing a chemical skill team accidentally runs down a deer and doesn’t see it get up again. The streets are mostly empty when Seok-woo drives to the train station, although there’s a faint indication of smoke further into the city. There’s a disturbance at the top of the platform escalators just as the train begins to pull out. And only Su-an sees a man tackled to the ground as the train speeds up.

Once the train is en route, there are plenty of plot complications to keep the tension going for the full two hour duration. The initial outbreak on the train needs to be contained to individual carriages. An abortive stop at a station roughly a third of the way into the journey leads to further casualties and the division of the survivors into three groups separated by the infected carriages. Attempts to reunite are complicated by paranoia about potentially infected survivors, and additional complications ensue shortly before reaching Busan.

Two main themes run through the movie. The relationship between Seok-woo and Su-an forms the main emotional throughline, symbolised by the song Su-an was unable to perform due to her father’s absence, which becomes more important than might be expected. But the wider theme is a conflict between selfish self-interest and collective altruistic behaviour. Seok-woo begins the movie as a man whose cutthroat work has caused him to lose empathy for others, destroyed his marriage and alienated his daughter. Shutting the door on the pregnant couple early in the movie, his daughter’s selfless example and rejection of his philosophy leads him to take a more active and selfless role as events develop. Choi provides the counter-example, an executive whose dedication to the “every man for himself” philosophy never falters, brandishing his privilege as a bludgeon to force people into taking actions ultimately informed by his fear rather than knowledge or productive creativity. Although acts of altruism are no guarantee of survival – many of the central cast won’t make it to the end of the movie – selfish acts are shown to be ultimately self-destructive (with a great deal of collateral damage).

Yeon also made the feature length animated prequel Seoul Station [Seoulyeok] (2016), released one month after Train to Busan and depicting what happened overnight before the train journey commenced. He followed up the success of Train to Busan with the comedy superhero movie Psychokinesis [Yeom-lyeok] (2018), currently on Netflix and newly added to my watch list. This year saw the release of Peninsula [Bando] (2020), returning to the zombie-infested South Korea four years after the outbreak, in what looks like a mix between a heist movie and Escape from New York (1981) – although the action-heavy trailer makes it look light on characterisation compared to Train to Busan, hopefully it will retain enough of the original’s flavour to be a comparable success.

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