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Review: Train to Busan (2016)

You might remember, WAY back in November of 2018, 2Spooky author Matt McNeal and I were supposed to team up for a double review of Train to Busan (like we did for Don’t Kill It (2016) and Doom (2005)). Well his review showed up on the 2Spooky page, but mine was nowhere to be seen. Here we are eight months later, and I finally got around to watching it. I have an excuse; I just don’t like zombie movies. They just don’t do it for me. I can’t tell you how many times I loaded up Netflix, scrolled to Train to Busan, but I just got bored by the thought of watching it so I couldn’t press play. Despite it’s rave reviews (95% on Rotten Tomatoes), and McNeal’s insistence that it is great and I need to watch it, I just couldn’t psyche myself up enough to pull the trigger. Well, I’m here to tell you, I made a mistake. I should have listened to him because he was not exaggerating; this movie is absolutely fantastic!

On the surface, the plot is very simple; a man (Seok-woo) and his daughter (Soo-an) are on a train to Busan (where the child’s mother lives) when a zombie outbreak happens. An infected person sneaks on the train and all hell breaks loose. The brilliant use of the train setting, allows director Sang-ho Yeon to create the best and most intense action scenes I’ve seen in a zombie movie. Even if this was just a surface level, crazy action/horror zombie movie, it would still rank among the top tier of the genre. That’s the best part though, the writing (also from Sang-ho Yeon along with Joo-Suk Park) is so damn good that this becomes much more than a simple zombie movie. The characters are so well written, the themes are explored so well, and the acting is so fantastic, that it easily secure a spot as one of the best zombie movies ever (Where you rank it is based on personal preference, but I would probably put it at #2 after Shaun of the Dead).

Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) fights to protect his daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an)

As I said before, setting the story on a train was an absolutely brilliant idea. The confined space of the train cars heightens the threat of the zombies, and allows tension to seep into every minute of the movie. While the zombie scenes aren’t exactly groundbreaking, Yeon masterfully used the spaces within the train, as well as the locations around the train (train stations, tunnels, and rail yards) to create thrilling set piece after thrilling set piece, all of which are varied enough to avoid feeling repetitive and creative enough to inject some freshness into a stale genre.

The standout scenes (though they are all great), in my opinion are those in the middle portion of the movie. After a brief and terrifying stop at a supposedly safe train station in Daejeong, the passengers retreat back to the train and scramble aboard, but in the chaos they are separated. Our main protagonist Seok-woo, Sang-hwa, and Yong-guk must make their way through multiple train cars filled with zombies to rescue their daughter, wife, and girlfriend, all of whom are trapped in a tiny restroom surrounded by zombies. Their journey to reunite is filled with clever, well written, and perfectly filmed zombie action that ranges from all out zombie brawls to sneaking around in the dark to avoid them. Every moment of it is filled to the brim with tension so, by the time they make it to the others, your nerves will be fried and you’ll be exhausted from holding your breath.

Our three heroes fight their way to their families.

While the action is great, what really sets Train to Busan apart from its peers is the great writing and acting that brings every character to life, as well as the themes and social commentary that are explored through those characters. Again, the train setting is absolutely perfect for this, as it is full of people of all ages and all walks of life. Some of the themes, like class conflict (specifically the upper class exploiting those beneath them) and corporate greed, are a bit obvious, though still relatively effective. Others, like sacrifice or social and moral obligations, are explored with more subtlety and those are the ones that drive the movie and allow us to connect with the characters. While most movies in the genre are shallow horror films focused on scary creatures trying to eat your brains, Train to Busan rises above the fray with its incredibly well written script that strives, and succeeds, to actually have brains (and make you use yours in the process).

All of this would mean nothing, however, if we weren’t genuinely invested in the characters, and that is the greatest achievement of this movie. Nearly every character, no matter how big the role, is presented in a way that will make you care for them and the acting is phenomenal across the board. My favorite character by far was Sang-hwa, played perfectly by Ma Dong-seok (he was nominated for 6 different Best Supporting Actor awards for his performance). He is a broad shouldered, hulking man who brings believability and intensity to the action scenes. He counters that with his instant likability, easy charm, and caring demeanor. He is a great character that becomes the crux in the main character’s arc.

Ma Dong-seok steals every scene he is in as Sang-hwa.

Every single character makes you invest in their story, and even the ones you don’t like make you sympathize with them at the very least. As a result, there are multiple moments that will have an emotional impact on you. I even found myself being surprised by moments that I should have seen coming from a mile away, but I was sucked in so effectively by the tension of the scenes, and by my genuine concern for the characters, I was completely caught off guard.

There aren’t many weaknesses in this movie but, if I had to complain about something, I would say that it does derail (shitty train pun intended) a bit towards the very end. We reach a point that could be a satisfying conclusion, when yet another obstacle presents itself in their journey to Busan. I’m not saying the ending sequences are bad, they are still incredible, but this is the only part of the movie that starts to drag slightly. They more than make up for that with the conclusion, though, which is the single most impactful moment I’ve ever seen in a movie of this kind. It is maybe a bit predictable, but that doesn’t stop it from being a completely devastating scene, that somehow manages to be horrible yet beautiful at the same time.

Overall, despite my dislike and lack of interest in the genre, I thoroughly enjoyed Train to Busan. In fact, this is nearly a flawless movie that I think everybody needs to see. Zombie movie fans will be treated to one of the finest examples of the genre ever made and those, like me, that don’t particularly care for the genre will undoubtedly be impressed by the magnificent script, directing, and acting. In my opinion, this is an absolute must see!

SCORE: 9.5 OUT OF 10 (A+)

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