Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writer: Sang-ho Yeon
Verdict: Really, really good fun
I saw Train to Busan, a Korean action/horror/thriller in maybe the perfect circumstances. The Leeds International Film Festival were doing a day of horror films at the town hall, I’d been to go see the excellent I Am Not a Serial Killer earlier in the day, (review here), and this was the last showing of the day. The crowd was fantastic, they jumped, laughed and clapped at the end, it was a joy. The film itself is no I Am Not a Serial Killer but then again very few things are.
The film follows a man taking his very alienated daughter on the titular train to Busan to see her mother on her birthday just when there’s a breakout of zombies. That’s pretty much all the plot you need to know.
The film has heritage in a whole litany of recent and older cinema. It has that ‘something goes wrong and a confined space becomes a microcosm of society’ thing that one could see in works like Snowpiercer and High-Rise. It has that real claustrophobic sense of zombies/antagonists in a confined space that you could get from 10 Cloverfield Lane, some Romero films like Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead, or even the last act of Shaun of the Dead, and it has this sort of burning analysis of our contemporary condition that I’m reliably informed this year’s Swiss Army Man has. The zombies themselves seem like a perfect meeting of the very western history of zombies, especially modern incarnations like 28 Days Later… and World War Z, and the eastern mythology of horror monsters as found in Ring and Ju-on: The Grudge, I mean the zombies do look fantastic, I really genuinely love the look of them. It has slightly different things to say about humanity in a sort of Performance, ‘this-is-now’ way than Swiss Army Man, although it does have hints of a similar satire of how we communicate with people these days, I mean it may be product placement but all the phones seem like monstrous huge creations imposing themselves over the frames because phones have just gotten so ridiculously big, although that might be reading into it a bit. What the film seems much more interested in is some incredible commentary on things like the refugee crisis, the way the media manipulates public opinion, the way big business has a hand in the way the media and government are run, and our modern economic situation, and it handles all of these very complicated and quite dense issues in a way that’s really easy, comprehensible and accessible; and that deserves so much applause. Especially given what’s actually happened between me seeing this film and the review going out these themes have never seemed so prescient. I will forever love the film I think just for that, because it is just incredible. Towards the beginning it does tend to smack you over the head a bit but the real genius lies in the third act when they near the final carriage of the train. There is a confrontation at the beginning of the third act that ties all these themes up in a neat little bow, nearly literally on screen.
I also really like the fact that despite heady political themes the film doesn’t take itself so seriously. It’s really funny and the rest of the audience and I laughed a lot. It does tend to forget that towards the end of the second act as the situation worsens but the film has very much endeared you to it through this comedy before then.
However, the film isn’t perfect, in terms of horror it’s very thrilling but when you want the pay off of lovely exploitation violence the film doesn’t quite go for it the way I would have wanted, and if it was for the sake of suggestion that would be fine, but it really looks like it’s because of budgetary restraints for their effects. There is CGI, but only where it would be legitimately dangerous to extras to do it any other way, but it does show and it does take you out of the moment. The film is also a bit scrappy, and that’s normally not a negative in horror films but when the film pitches itself as this big action/thriller it is a problem. Also, the score is kind of shit, sorry.
That being said, the film is a very engaging, if not particularly scary, zombie action thriller with a great deal of intelligent satire. The great thing about 28 Weeks Later, actually one of the first things I ever reviewed on this blog, is that, maybe unlike something like I, Daniel Blake, it’s a great big political film that’s not preaching to the choir, which is really a unique power horror films hold I think. Genre films tend to have a devoted audience just for that genre and horror is no different, which is great because it means you can heap on the political subtext, (although here it actually comes across more like a surtext), and I think Train to Busan has that same benefit as 28 Weeks Later, it has a whole lot of brains and whole lot of brawn, and it’s really good fun to boot.