Before we proceed with the review, I just want to preface my viewpoint by saying that zombie flicks typically hold a very special place in my heart. The sheer versatility of zombie movies and their ability to glide through a litany of genres, such as horror (28 Days Later), comedy (Zombieland), action (World War Z), and drama (I am Legend), is simply impressive and enjoyable. However, as exciting a zombie movie could be, they are also some of the most difficult to execute to perfection. Although the overall premise or idea of a massive zombie outbreak seems farfetched, a good zombie flick should have elements of practicality. For instance, the ability to adequately hide, gather intelligence and resources, and strategically plot against the zombies is a critical order of operations. This is where Train to Busan sadly comes disappointingly short.
Director Yeon Sang Ho is most notably known for his thematically mature animated films such as The Fake (2013) and The King of Pigs (2011). His latest animated film, Seoul Station, was the closing film of this year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival and is actually sort of a prequel to Train to Busan that introduces the audience to some of the backstory behind the zombie apocalypse that swept the Korean nation. Train to Busan is Yeon’s first live action feature, and his ability to work with a star studded cast helped to draw plenty of hype and anticipation before its wide release.
Train to Busan centers around a self-centered and money hungry absentee father named Seok Woo (Gong Yoo). His demanding job as a successful fund manager has attributed to his quickly deteriorating relationship with his daughter, Soo An (Kim Soo Ahn), and his estranged wife. Life is particularly stressful for Seok Woo who tries to find a balance between his career and being a single parent. When Soo An asks her father to take her to Busan to visit her mother, Seok Woo reluctantly says yes in order to get in his daughter’s good graces. Their two-and-a-half hour journey aboard the high speed train to Busan starts off like any other, until they learn that a mass zombie outbreak has infected the country and eventually takes over their entire train.
The film’s main star, Gong Yoo (Coffee Prince), is an absolute fan favorite in Korea. However, Gong Yoo is more often recognized for his pretty boy features, rather than his strong acting. His 2007 television drama, 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, catapulted Gong Yoo into the limelight and quite possibly spearheaded the rampant coffee addicted culture that is prevalent in Korea. In Train to Busan, Gong Yoo certainly had his moments of high emotional and dramatic acting as his every-man-for- himself philosophy and his relationship with his daughter Soo An develops, but these scenes seemed to be more reminiscent of his Korean drama background rather than more appropriately attuned with the sheer horror or desperation that a zombie apocalypse should warrant. Additionally, Gong Yoo doesn’t really strike me as the hunky leader to help save mankind of a zombie onslaught. Most Hollywood blockbusters featuring a zombie backstory have a protagonist that the audience can truly stand behind as he helps lead the way to safety. Instead, Gong Yoo seemed to take a backseat to his supporting cast, especially as Ma Dong Seok’s character began to shine through as a more appropriate hero-like figure.
Ma Dong Seok (The Neighbors, 2013) was one of the film’s true highlights as he played his typical foul mouthed and overall badass role to perfection. More known for his predictable bone crushing roles as a police officer or Korean gangster, Ma more than delivered on his expectations as the unexpected hero of the movie. His light hearted, down to Earth, and brute force action scenes helped the audience reclaim a sense of hope against the unwavering zombie outbreak that infiltrates their train to Busan. Although cast as a supporting actor, Ma seemed at times to overtake Gong Yoo as the de facto alpha dog that could actually help save the lives of hundreds of people against the zombie apocalypse. This created a small sense of confusion and dissatisfaction in the overall casting of the movie. By the end of the film, I couldn’t help but assume that the film simply cast Gong Yoo to capitalize on his strengths as a heartthrob and use his name recognition to draw bigger crowds.
Choi Woo Sik (Rooftop Prince, 2012) was another supporting cast member that seemed to be thrown into the film for his good looks and heartthrob status. He and his baseball team are all aboard the train en route for an away game. Director Yeon offers up some fan service as Choi has his moments of being an underrated hero who works to save the baseball team’s cheerleader (played by former Wonder Girls star, Sohee) from the onslaught of zombie attacks. Despite for creating an opportunity to get some baseball bats aboard the train for some zombie brain-bashing, Choi’s abrupt and almost trivial appearance in the movie really did not enhance or negatively affect the film in anyway. In truth, the need for Choi’s character was extremely minimal, and to feature him in certain scenes as a shy and sweet pretty boy made me think about how disingenuous the characters were in this film.
Kim Soo An (Memories of the Sword, 2015; Late Spring, 2014) certainly was one of the stars of the movie. Her dramatic acting as Seok Woo’s daughter was a strong focal point of certain horror or emotion laded scenes. Her penchant for dramatic acting really shined through in several scenes called upon her to turn on the waterworks. She seemed genuine as a naïve ten year old girl that, at times, seems more mature and kind hearted than her father. My only criticism of her performance was the robotic transition of her crying scenes, which came off as a bit forced. Overall she continues to show a lot of promise as a young actress.
Now, comes the best part of the review…the zombies. Overall, the zombies looked amazing on camera. The special effects were natural and really enhanced their look. They didn’t seem as unnatural or decrepit as the creatures featured in other well-known zombie hits, such as I am Legend. This really helped the audience connect the fact that zombies were once living beings that just suffered the unfortunate fate of being infected with an unexplained virus.
However, even as a zombie movie, there are scenes that just seem almost too far-fetched. The fact that an entire train was afflicted with a virus that turned humans into zombies within a matter of minutes seemed too unreasonable for the cast to even fathom survival. More specifically, the zombies seemed to exhibit an enhanced sense of strength and rabid movements, which should have overtaken the train in a lot less than an hour. Also, being aboard the train and with the only real option of moving from north to south and from car to car, there is obviously a lot door opening and closing and barricading. The fact that the vast majority of the film’s setting takes here really overstays its welcome disappointingly quickly.
One of my favorite parts about seeing a strong zombie movie is the manner in which the heroes comically or brutally destroy their zombie counterparts. This was one of the weakest points of Train to Busan. There was never a memorable scene in which the heroes had that triumphant moment that makes you want to jump out of your seat screaming, “HELL YEAH!” For instance, there was one particular antagonist in the movie that really agitated and provoked the main cast. As a consistent pest throughout the film, it would be have great to see the ultimate demise of this annoying character once he/she turned into a zombie. However, the film just simply falls flat and misses out on a lot of great opportunities that could have elevated Train to Busan from adequate zombie flick into a memorable one.
Overall, Yeon Sang Ho’s first foray into a live action feature film was a bit disappointing to say the least. Coming from a mature animated film background, I wholehearted expected to see more graphic and visually appealing scenes. At first, having a zombie outbreak spread throughout a train seemed novel and brought on a particular sense of anxiety as the audience is left wondering how the characters might potentially get off the train to safety. However, the novelty quickly wore off as the characters had to resort to laughable means of strategically working their way around or counteracting the zombies. Additionally, the star studded cast’s flashes of insincere acting tend to remind you of your typical major motion picture money-grab type of movie. The film started off very promising as the audience was given a preview of the events to come, but overall the story was simply void of distinct details, emotions, and appropriate innovative ideas. Train to Busan is more of a movie you see on a date for a somewhat enjoyable two hour experience, but will quickly be forgotten once you leave the theater.
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