Train to Busan review: All aboard for the most thrilling surprise of 2016
Train to Busan review: It is one of the best surprises of the year; a redemption tale that reminds us how close we are to losing our humanity, but also the compassion we are capable of. All aboard.Updated: Oct 23, 2016 17:45 IST
Train to Busan
Direction: Yeon Sang-ho
Actors: Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an
No one transforms B-movies into high art quite like the Koreans. It’s a careless generalisation to make, but nonetheless, quite an accurate one. And if they keep producing films like Train to Busan, which has been generating consistent buzz since its midnight premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it is a generalisation I will proudly keep making.
For more than an hour of its two-hour run time, Train to Busan lives up to its title, hurtling along at break-neck speed, with the barest premise anchoring to the tracks. For more than an hour, it is one of the most purely entertaining, yet quietly poignant thrillers you’re likely to see this, or any other year. But while it certainly never fully goes off the rails in its third act, it definitely loses some steam - and that’s what stops it from being great.
Train to Busan makes the wise decision to have its plot be driven by its characters and not the other way around. As straightforward as the premise is (a distant father takes his daughter to visit her mother, his estranged wife, while a zombie outbreak threatens to overrun their train), it’s the interactions between the characters and the relationships they forge, and not, as one would expect, the rampage raging outside (and two coaches over), that makes this film so special.
As the outside world and a substantial portion of the train is consumed by chaos, the safest place to hide is in one coach. The claustrophobia gives the film an almost Hitchcockian edge, despite the frequent scenes of carnage, and brings to mind the brilliant Canadian zombie film Pontypool (set in the confines of a radio booth) and the British series Dead Set (the Big Brother house). Its complete disregard for zombie rules aside (it’s more World War Z than Shaun of the Dead), what elevates Train to Busan is the sheer skill with which it is made.
Like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, Kim Seong-hun’s A Hard Day and most notably, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer - all classic films of this Golden Age of Korean Cinema, Train to Busan explores the (fine) line between civilisation and barbarism, and has the unmistakable undercurrent of class struggle running through it. There is an upstairs/downstairs dynamic between the first-class passengers and those in the back that plays an important, but subtle part in the proceedings.
The action is tense, violent and thrilling, especially one particularly wrenching scene featuring actor Ma Dong-seok - who resembles a young Choi Min-sik, his Nameless Gangster co-star and the Amitabh Bachchan of Korean movies.
Train to Busan is one of the best surprises of the year; a redemption tale that reminds us how close we are to losing our humanity, but also the compassion we are capable of. All aboard.