Train to Busan: The Korean Zombie Film Phenomenon
Over the past few years South Korea has taken the world by storm with its media and entertainment industry. The phenomenon which of Kdrama is highly unforgettable. Many wonder how the Korean media became such a key player in global entertainment. It was a slow but growing process in which Korean entertainers worked hard at honing their craft and promoting themselves effectively. The true moment when it showed that the Koreans were here to stay was when the Korean film Parasite directed by Bong Joon-Ho won the 2019 Oscar for the Best Picture. This made it the first non-English-speaking film to win this Oscar since its inception. It was truly record-breaking and noteworthy, and at that moment the eyes of the world truly turned to South Korea to see if it can live up to this greatness. Truly ever since then, the country has done nothing but churn out critically acclaimed and great cinematic and television pieces.
In this section, I will be analyzing the Korean zombie film phenomenon, Train to Busan. It is an amazing piece of art directed by Yeon Sang-ho, written by Park Joo-suk, and produced by Lee Dong-ha. It features popular faces like Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Su-an, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee, and Kim Eui-sung.
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The film begins with a car going into some sort of a quarantine zone. We are introduced to a farmer who argues with the scientist all wrapped up in protective gear about burying his hogs again. The scientist assures him that none of that will happen this time and he is wrapped up in protective gear because of a bio-spill not too far off from where they are located. He lets him know that what is going on is merely precautionary and that it will be over soon. The farmer drives off talking and complaining to himself, his phone in the front seat beside him begins to ring. He struggles to reach the phone and is distracted from the road when he hears a loud sound. He comes down to take a look at what happened and notices that he ran over a deer. The farmer checks his car to make sure it was not affected in the collision and takes a look at the deer and complains about how the day just keeps getting terrible for him. He drives off eventually and the camera then focuses on the deer. The deer lying in his own pool of blood looking quite dead makes a little movement and suddenly with the sound of joints trying to adjust itself, the deer stands up and looks around. The camera then pans to its eyes that are white all over.
Right after this scene we are introduced to the hedge-fund trader Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) who resides in an opulent apartment with his mother and daughter Su-an, a ten-year old who is well aware that her parents are no longer together. The following day is Su-an’s birthday, and the night before her father gets her the same gift he got her for Children’s Day this year. In a bid to makeup for his mistake, he asks her what she would like instead of what he got her. She tells him that she would love to go spend her birthday with her mother in Busan. Although Seok-woo and his wife have constant disagreements and barely get along, the one thing they equally have interest in is their daughter. Su-an had told her mother that she would come by train herself, but her father was not comfortable with it. At first, he promised her that they would be able to do that next week, but Su-an begged for the trip to be the following day.
After much convincing from his daughter, Seok-woo grudgingly agrees to travel with his daughter when she takes the KTX train to visit her mother in Busan out of guilt. He meets a bunch of high school baseball players on the train, including the young lovers Jinhee and Young-guk, as well as a young married couple, the bulky Sang-hwa and the pregnant Seong-gyung. They barely notice the brief TV and online news reports of unusual disturbances erupting in various areas. Up until a teen girl comes into the just-departed train and bites a conductor, her skin covered in black and blue veins and her teeth chattering with insane rage. The conductor soon starts to exhibit the same signs. The KTX train moving at 155 miles per hour is swarming with milky-white, fast-moving undead, and there is nowhere to hide from their exponentially growing numbers.
A full-fledged zombie action-horror directed by Yeon Sang-ho, the man behind the gruesome and bone-chilling animated films The King of Pigs and The Fake, which were also unflinchingly horrifying portraits of the hypocrisies and emotional violence of contemporary Korean society, opens with this. It is one of the most unexpected genre offerings from South Korea in recent years. It is both a comfort and an odd let-down to find that Train to Busan has no desire to distort its genre-derived aspects beyond recognition given Yeon’s kind of ruthless, almost brutal, temperament toward his characters. But make no mistake, Korean genre filmmakers have the skill and guts to compete against studios many times their size. Train to Busan stomps to death those meager, imaginatively challenged zombie pictures that have been a hallmark of low-budget horror since the completion of George Romero’s Dead trilogy, much as The Wailing rips the skullcaps off any garden-variety possessed-by-the-devil horror masterpiece (all of which have themselves been remade more than once by other filmmakers).
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The movie employs a winning formula that combines the Hollywood style of stacking creatively designed and expertly executed set pieces on top of one another with a more East Asian sensibility that favors physically intense action and bold-faced melodramatics without the use of CGI. Despite World War Z’s larger scope, its computer-rendered human hills of shambling zombies pale in comparison to, for example, the jaw-droppingly raw stunt in Train’s pivotal chase scene, which features dozens of zombies forming a horrifying sheet of human carpet behind a speeding train.
A standout sequence in which our remaining protagonists, led by Seok-woo and Sang-hwa and equipped with a baseball bat, a riot policeman’s shield, and knuckles tightly wrapped in duct tape, must pass through a car filled with oncoming traffic is Yeon’s complete control over complex action set-pieces. Yeon makes excellent use of typically mundane spaces like the restroom and the luggage compartments, or routine situations like the train entering tunnels at certain points. The sequence strikes the ideal balance between heart-stopping thrills and adrenaline-pumping excitement, making it one of the best “we have to bust a few zombie heads to save loved ones” scenes ever captured on film (or digital pixels).
Yeon does not neglect his characters either. They do, however, appear to be more like genre archetypes than actual people, and their literary and originality are not as intriguing (and occasionally scary) as in his earlier films. However, I must disagree with the claim that he uses cliched tear-jerking story twists, particularly in the last third. True, perhaps he should not have given Gong Yoo so many “moving” close-ups, but overall I agree with Yeon’s decision to not assume the worst about people aside from Yong-seok, the movie’s one truly hateable villain, who nevertheless has a strangely touching moment when he flashes back to the memory of a childhood trauma just before the zombie virus completely takes over his brain.
Viewing the movie, it is easy to understand that its true stars are the unidentified extras who play the zombies. They are vicious, frightening, and occasionally funny, and it works really well when they suddenly go from normal, everyday soldiers, high school students, and salarymen into body-contorting, growling beasts. The DP worked with martial arts coordinator Heo Myung-haeng and his Seoul Action School staff, special effects makeup artist Gwak Tae-yong and his team, “body movement composer” Park Jae-in, who allegedly looked to the inhuman yet graceful movements of animated characters in movies like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence to come up with the choreography for the zombie’s distinctive, jerky movements, and special effects makeup artist Gwak Tae-yong and his crew Lee Hyung-deok. To turn stuntmen and extras into such cunning creatures, lighting supervisor Park Jeong-woo and editor Yang Jin-mo used their amazing skills to achieve their transformation.
Train to Busan satirizes a number of delicate local issues while careening at top speed and deftly creating a great deal of excitement and thrills among viewers. The film is peppered with pointed allusions to current events and controversies, including the disastrous sinking of the Sewol ferry and the tragic loss of many teenage lives, the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic of 2010, which forced farmers to slaughter more than one million pigs, and other recent events and controversies.
In all, I found Train to Busan to be an amazing piece of work. The beauty of the story and its execution is without words amazing and truly breath-taking. The actors did such a good job conveying the emotions and the lives of these characters and gave us the audience the room and ability to get to know and understand them better. With Train to Busan, the K-factor ruling the world is unarguably phenomenal.
Paquet, Darcy. “Train to Busan.” Korean Movie Reviews for 2016, 2016, www.koreanfilm.org/kfilm16.html#traintobusan.
Rotten Tomatoes. “Train to Busan.” Rotten Tomatoes, www.rottentomatoes.com/m/train_to_busan.
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