My notes on FrightFest closing film Busan Haeeng (Train to Busan)
This Korean high concept horror/disaster mash-up comes so late in the zombie apocalypse cycle that it barely sketches its background premise – a bio-experiment has gone wrong somewhere, and a zombie contagion rages in South Korea. Director Yeon Sang-ho is best-known for animation, and set up this live-action breakout hit with a cartoon prequel, Seoul Station, which focuses on an outbreak in the title location. Here, after some character introduction vignettes (always a disaster movie staple) and an exciting chase/battle in the station itself, the action moves out of the city on a high-speed train. The lead is white-shirted hedge fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) who is reluctantly dragged away from his job by an obligation to take his unhappy daughter Su-an (Kim Su-ran) to see her mother on her birthday – when he mentions his job to a fellow survivor, he is pointedly told that it must make him an expert in ‘leaving useless people behind’. Also in the small group of folks who find themselves battling through the train are pregnant Sung-kyung (Jung Yu-mi) and her gruff but likeable two-fisted husband (Ma Dong-suk) and a high school baseball player (Choi Woo-sik) and associated cheerleader (An So-hee). In the inevitable baddie role is sweaty, self-serving exec Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung), who keeps making demands, barricades doors against the unifected and infected alike, throws people in the path of zombies to effect an escape and naturally comes to a bad end.
Sang-ho takes the fast zombie concept to limits with a fast-acting virus, which fells bitten victims who rise with cracking double-joints and instantly become frothing, feral attackers. It’s an evolution from the approach of … 28 days later and World War Z, and there are good uses of zombie hordes as an insect-like swarm – pressing against the windows of an overturned carriage to pile out, forming a dogpile train behind a rolling locomotive, crawling over each other en masse – though few moments where individual zombies make an impression, and several major characters are zombified then never seen again scuppering the chance for poignant, horrific or ironic reunions. Another distinctive frill is that these zombies are sight-driven, so putting a coat over one’s head is effective …and whenever the train enters a tunnel, they mill around, distracted by sound, and give the survivors a chance to creep by (crawling along the luggage racks) to evade them. It’s much more of an action film than a gore movie, with byte-like non-biting scenes to establish character and themes. In his introduction scenes, we see that Seok-woo, who has invested in the lab that is the cause of the trouble, has driven his wife away by his ruthlessness and has constantly disappointed his daughter by not showing up for school concerts and the like – and when the crisis starts he tries to use his connections to find a way out he won’t share with others, but Su-an gets him to be more altruistic. In an almost Disneyish way, the message of the film is that helping others is better than just helping oneself – though the ruthless rules of zombie cinema, plus a Korean love of self-sacrifice and unhappy outcomes (remember the way the kid died in The Host?) mean that this hard-won lesson still doesn’t ensure anyone will make it to the supposed safe haven of Busan intact.
Like The Host, this takes familiar genre forms and tailors them to Korean audiences – there are references to the MERS outbreak of 2015 and the controversial official response, while a couple of the characters (Seok-woo’s wise, unhappy grandmother and a couple of contrasting elderly lady passengers) seem to be local archetypes liable to prompt reactions foreign audiences won’t have. What is universal is the thrill ride aspect – and this is genuinely an exciting movie – probably the best monsters-on-a-train film since Horror Express.