Train to Busan (2016)

This is an extended version of my onstage introduction to the film when it screened on 6 Oct 2016 as a teaser for the 11th London Korean Film Festival

Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I welcome you aboard this special screening of Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan. By early August, the film had already sold 10 million tickets in South Korea, making it the very definition of a domestic blockbuster – and tonight it is brought to you by the Korean Cultural Centre as the final teaser for November’s London Korean Film Festival.

Yeon’s first two features, The King of Pigs (2011) and The Fake (2013), were composed of a simple style of animation, but being among the bleakest, most misanthropic and harrowing works ever to have emerged from Korea, they quickly disillusioned anyone who held the view that cartoons are for kids. Train To Busan is a very different prospect – not just because it is Yeon’s first live-action film, but also because it comes with a rich seam of humanistic sentiment and with the sort of (mostly) likeable characters who were missing from Yeon’s earlier material. Train to Busan may be a zombie film – indeed, the first in Korean cinema – but at genre festivals around the world its heightened pathos has been reducing hardened horror fans to tears.

Gong Woo stars as Seok-woo, a white-collar worker wedded to his office job in Seoul. When working-class father-to-be Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) observes that funding managers like Seok-woo are ‘blood suckers’ who ‘leech off others’, he is not entirely wrong. For Seok-woo’s selfishness and neglect of his loved ones have already cost him his wife – who has moved to Busan – and he is in the process of losing his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) too. On Su-an’s birthday, Seok-woo reluctantly takes time off work to accompany her on the KTX high-speed rail to visit her mother. Yet when a rapidly spreading viral outbreak turns its victims into literal blood suckers and flesh eaters, Seok-woo will have to transform himself to save his daughter, learning the values of altruism, teamwork and self-sacrifice along the way.

As the train, and the zombies on it, barrel along relentlessly, they lend the film a breathless pace and plenty of opportunities for thrilling action sequences – think World War Z, only with a much tighter narrative focus. If the zombies’ sheer speed represents a departure from George A. Romero’s original paradigm for the slow-shuffling undead, Yeon also offers, in his closing sequence, a pointed rejoinder to the famous final scene of Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead.

Yet Yeon has learned from Romero that the undead can be a vehicle for the apocalyptic revelations of political allegory. Like Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2014), Train to Busan is a genre film set on a fast-moving locomotive – and it uses the trappings of genre to highlight the hierarchical structures that problematise, divide and compartmentalise Korean society. Here both zombies and train come to symbolise the blind forward momentum of an all-consuming capitalism, unchecked by the brake of any social principle. These undead, despite their overwhelming numbers, have no collectivist spirit, and literally walk all over each other to get what they want – and several of the living characters behave in much the same way. Significantly, the villain of the piece (played by Kim Eui-sung) is an élite company executive who treats everyone else as a mere means to his own end.

If one of the main characters in Train to Busan is a homeless man (Choi Gwi-hwa) already traumatised from having witnessed a zombie attack in Seoul, this furnishes a link to Yeon’s Seoul Station, an animated ‘prequel’ made before Train to Busan but released a few weeks after it in Korea, and set amongst the marginalised demimonde of prostitutes, beggars and down-and-outs who live around the city’s central station – which will be screening in November’s London Korean Film Festival.

So please do come along to the Festival, and take a dip – or a dive – into the deep end of Korean cinema, which continues to be amongst the the world’s most innovative, vibrant and mercurial. And in the meantime, here is Train to Busan. Enjoy the ride.

© Anton Bitel