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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng) movie review: delays due to zombies

Train to Busan green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
This South Korean hit is an oozy doozy of a horror-thriller; confidently spins out its own unique — and breathless — take on familiar genre tropes.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): always up for a good zombie movie
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Just as a high-speed intercity train is about to pull out of the station in Seoul, a young woman — moaning, in pain, bitten — hops aboard. Before long, a “violent riot” has broken out, just like the ones the news channel is reporting are erupting in cities across the country. Social media sites on the passengers’ smartphones are popping up one trending keyword: “zombie.” Train to Busan, the live-action debut of animation director Sang-ho Yeon, with a script by Joo-Suk Park, broke box-office records when it opened in South Korea last week, and with good reason. This is an oozy doozy of a horror-thriller, one that confidently spins out its own unique — and breathless — take on familiar genre tropestweet. The voracious bloodlust of undead bodies that bend and move in disturbingly abnormal ways feels like an affront to the sleek shininess of the train, and the enclosed spaces of the narrow carriages only concentrate and amplify the terror they bring. (Most of the movie takes place onboard the train, but even the occasional spills off it, like into a station concourse, make striking use of everyday spaces.) But the best horror movies know that the real monsters are often to be found among ordinary people, and so Train gives us a host of passengers fighting among themselves as they fight for their lives: cold single dad Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) and his sweet gradeschool daughter, Su-an (Su-an Kim); pregnant Sung-kyung (Yu-mi Jung) and her gruff husband, Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma); an entire athletic team (baseball bats turn out to be handy weapons for fighting zombies); and others. The predicament of these characters, sharply drawn in broad but poignant strokes, becomes more unexpectedly affecting than we’re used to from horror flickstweet, and ends up being as much about retaining — or finding — oneself as saving a life.


green light 4 stars

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Train to Busan (Busanhaeng) (2016) | directed by Sang-ho Yeon
US/Can release: Jul 22 2016
UK/Ire release: Oct 28 2016

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 15 (strong bloody violence)

viewed on my iPad

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • amanohyo

    I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but the final fifteen minutes are a tad schmaltzy by American standards. However by Korean standards, the whole thing is downright subdued (if you’ve ever “accidentally” watched any K-dramas you know what I mean). Considering how excellent the first hour and a half is, I suppose the ending cheese is well-earned – it did manage to jerk a couple tears from my manly ducts. There’s even a slight North/South reunification metaphor running through the script alongside the more obvious social commentary about Christian selflessness. My only real complaint is that the gender norms are depressingly conventional. For a a big budget, mainstream Korean flick though, it doesn’t get much better than this.

    An added bonus was the halmeoni sitting next to me who applauded gleefully at the end of all the best action scenes. Keep in mind, I’m half Korean, so it’s only partially problematically patronizing when I say that watching an adorable, tiny asian octogenerianette get a kick out of gory zombie violence is hilarious.

  • I have a low tolerance for schmaltz, and the ending didn’t bother me.

    The gender norms are pretty, well, norm, but certainly not obnoxiously so.

  • amanohyo

    It’s become so commonplace to see confident, no nonsense ass-kicking women striding through recent American films that their absence here was a tad jarring at first. The “stand back and let the macho men protect the young/infatuated/pregnant/elderly females” is an accurate representation of the more entrenched ideas about the separate roles of men and women in South Korean society.

    These norms have been harmful to my mother who is a macho badass in almost every sense of the word (martial artist, soldier, computer programmer, bisexual, chain smoker, world traveler). She and two of her sisters were looked down on in Korea for not fitting neatly into a more submissive feminine mold. They all eventually chose to move out of the country in part to avoid these expectations, so my personal bias makes me a tad depressed when I see these roles reinforced.

    The zombies are of course very egalitarian in their division of labor and responsibilities. They can be seen as representing North Koreans who are hostile toward reunification. In the Korean War, the first major stand against the North Koreans was made in the Battle of Pusan Perimeter, so there’s some overt political commentary going on that most Koreans and older vets will notice.

    Regarding schmaltz, the flashback, slow motion, and singing were a little corny, but my emotions were successfully manipulated so it didn’t really bother me too much. The all around great acting helped to melt the cheese too.

    Thank you for taking the time to write a review. I think this has a good shot at doing well in the west if it continues to get positive buzz and mainstream audiences are willing to give a subtitled movie a chance again. It was cool to see that about twenty percent of the audience at my showing were non-Koreans.

  • JohnC

    When I see normal described as “obnoxious” it is apparent that the next phase of the PC campaign against society has begun – the prohibition of family, heterosexuals etc.

  • Bluejay

    Yep, that’s what all we PC libs want to do. Muwahahaha. Your days are numbered, breeder.

  • JohnC

    Why am I not surprised that you respond to a satirical comment with a vicious personal attack?

  • Bluejay

    Why am *I* not surprised that you fail to recognize my comment as satirical?

  • Yup. Banning straights is next on the list. Be prepared.

  • RogerBW

    Compulsory gay marriage for everyone!

    (At which point we’ll run out of homosexuals, so we’ll have to convert a bunch more.)

  • bronxbee

    do you think we’ll each be issued a gay partner, or will we be allowed to choose one for ourselves?

  • RogerBW

    Dibs on Brad from Toronto.

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