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Review: Sang-ho Yeon’s ‘Train to Busan’

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The train is about to depart. Please have a safe and comfortable journey. As a rumination on the zombie genre that sees the undead re-risen for their nth iteration, Train to Busan manages to sniff out some fresh blood amongst the vast sea of entertainment zombies “dancing” for the world’s attention.

With little to no explanatory opening, director Yeon Sang-ho spends all of five minutes introducing characters and their goals, before his lust for the gory stuff demands satisfaction. Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) spends far too much time making obscene sums of money as a Burger King-munching fund manager, and not enough on his bygone marriage and failing relationship with his daughter. As a last minute birthday present to young Soo-an (2016 adds another in a long list of incredible child performances with what Kim Su-an is able to do here), the begrudging anti-hero selflessly — as he sees it anyway — accompanies his daughter on a KTX bullet train to see her mother in Busan. As the train is ready to depart, a comical misdirection allows an infected girl to make her way past the conductor, endangering the lives of all on board.

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Taking a page from Bong Joon-ho’s train-based linear thriller Snowpiercer, Yeon’s chamber horror shares its intimate sensibilities with “stuck in a room” zombie films, yet possesses an undeniable kinetic energy as the film literally hurls itself forward at a hundred miles an hour. Cutting his teeth as an animation director, Yeon refuses many of the conventions of video camera-based filmmaking, and uncouples his lens from the world that surrounds it. Twirling bits of disorientation convey the frantic energy of this unbelievable situation, along with a previously unseen first-person zombie angle. Employing what must be a combination of free-runners and break dancers as his zombie hoard, Yeon’s undead K-Pop army brokenly sprint toward their victims, while pop-and-locking their way into viewers’ nightmares. Given a few more interesting quirks and tendencies, including an ant-like penchant for piling on top of one another, Yeon’s monsters have managed, incredibly, to find a tiny slice of new ground in a genre that has been around since 1968.

The country-wide outbreak, and the microcosmic version happening on board the 101 to Busan, seem as unstoppable as the massive train. Each are coursing their way toward an inevitable conclusion, and each will not be so easily diverted. This sense of inevitability lends itself to the writer/director’s view of his characters, in that each of them is or will be either selfish or selfless, good or bad. Any middle ground, like the easily-swayed interlopers that dot the background, is boring and unworthy of close study. This outbreak has stripped these characters of all discernible ambiguity, and has rendered them each a personification of their one true nature. These people never falter, as they simply grow louder and sharper. Train to Busan becomes obsessed with how its characters will face the various obstacles thrown at them, but the film does not operate with a human desire for justice. What will happen will happen, the only consolation that this version of cinematic life offers is knowing one died or fought honorably.

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Zombie films often explore the instincts that drive humanity, and those that make up human nature. Beyond what the brain-loving undead seek from the living, these films cut to the core of our individual value systems, and literally (depending on how good the FX team is) show us what we are made of. Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan continues this legacy of the genre from which it draws its premise, while providing plenty of unspoiled flesh for a ravenous audience to sink their teeth into.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.

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