Train to Busan is a lament on cruelty, yet, more importantly, it’s an odyssey of human kindness, one which depicts the fierce strengths of being kind and the pathetic emptiness of being cruel. Yeon Sang-ho’s directorial debut is astonishing because of how he presents these themes. What appears to be a zombie driven thriller ends up horrifyingly moving as light fights against all-engulfing darkness and the sins and disunity of the world boil to the surface.
The light, in this case, is the pure Soo-an (Kim Soo-an) the young daughter of fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo). The film begins on the eve of her birthday and, with her father dreadfully bad at buying gifts, she asks of him only one thing, to travel to Busan to see her mother. Now estranged from his ex-wife and busy with work Seok-woo resists the idea at first, but upon seeing his daughters haunting sad eyes, a motif that plagues us throughout the film, he caves and they head to the train station not knowing they will soon be in a fight for their lives.
There they board the train without incident. A baseball team is boarding too, and one female student supposedly given permission to accompany them is causing a fuss amongst the boys as she chooses the one she likes the most to sit with. It’s such an inconspicuous slice of life, one of many we see before the violence starts, and we always know something is coming, because a distressed woman boards the train at the last second and begins convulsing, becoming undead. The next few moments are full of blissful ignorance, as we start introductions with passengers we know don’t have high chances of survival.
With the snap of a finger, the pulse quickens. Characters get separated in the delirium, and deaths occur en-mass as the lines draw between humanity. These lines are what the film is all about. They are why Sang-ho created this hellscape; to critique how we treat one another. A renegade group of passengers steals refuge of the only safe carriage left on the train, and at the command of the mortified and frankly evil Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), they lock and barricade the doors to prevent those left fighting for their lives from entering.
Seok-woo starts out just like them, only focusing on saving his and his daughter’s life, ignoring the pregnant and elderly around him. His arc is one of redemption in a sense, at least in the eyes of his daughter. Soo-an knows her fathers’ weakness, knows that it was his selfishness that saw him divorce from her mother. Coming to this realisation drives Seok-woo to be better, and he fights to save those around him despite it only amounting to further persecution down the line. The grandness of this theme hits like an avalanche when all our heroes approach the locked door with a horde on their tails, the cruelty encompassed within just the sounds of them trying to break down the door begs the question, who should we really be afraid of?
The final portion of the film is devastation after devastation and sees heroic sacrifice taken to a whole new level of heartbreaking. One of horror’s greatest hurdles is introducing characters the audience knows are going to die and managing to make them feel something when they do. Countless dramas pull this off with one or two powerful central performances, Train to Busan does it with almost its entire ensemble, none of whom I have done justice here. There’s a moment as an audience member when the dust settles, and you realise you have fallen for countless tropes without even realising it. That’s what makes this one of the most effective horror films of the last decade; it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it just makes a much nicer, more impressive wheel.
I can say without a doubt that Train to Busan will sit with you long after you spend some time with it. The evocative horror will stir you as it plays, but its messages will stick to the back of your mind considerably longer, asking you which side you would be on in the same circumstances. Let’s hope none of us ever have to answer that question, and if we do, let’s hope we answer correctly.
Dir: Yeon Sang-ho
Scr: Park Ju-sook, Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Kim Soo-an, Yoo Gong, Kim Eui-sung, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok
Prd: Kim Yeon-ho, Kim Woo-taek, Lee Dong-Ha
DOP: Lee Hyung-deok
Country: South Korea
Run time: 118 minutes