Train to Busan is a tense ride”

by C. Rachel Katz

Zombie night is TADFF founder Adam Lopez’s favourite night of the entire festival. As someone who’s not a huge fan of the genre, I attend zombie night more out of a sense of duty than anything else. Over-exposure to zombie films, many of which are very much the same, has taken its toll, and I have a hard time getting pumped for TADFF zombie night. In past years, I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoyed some of the zombie offerings, and the same happened again this year. The After Dark crew worked hard to hype Train to Busan (a standing ovation at Cannes!) and the film totally delivered.

Most of my complaints about zombies stem from my belief that we reached market saturation a long time ago. The films that manage to bring something new or refreshing to the table are few and far between, and those that do are coming to us from all over the world. Train to Busan is South Korea’s foray into zombie genre, in which a handful of zompocalpyse survivors are stuck on a train.

Seok Woo is accompanying his daughter on the train from Seoul to Busan, where she will spend time with her mother. It’s his way of trying to mend their strained relationship—he can’t really afford the half-day off but he refuses to let the young Soo-an travel alone and it’s her birthday with to visit her mom. Earlier that same morning, some kind of accident sparks a zombie outbreak, and an infected person makes it onto the train. As the train hurtles down the track, the passenger cars fill up with zombies. The survivors’ only hope is to make it Busan, which is rumoured to be safe.

Train to Busan
Directed by
Sang-ho Yeon
Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong
Release Date
22 July 2016
Rachel’s Grade: A

The close quarters of the train is a good setting for this kind of survival story, in that there’s really nowhere to go; in much the same way that the train can only travel along its track, the passengers can only movie up and down the train cars. When the outbreak happens, passengers frantically run from car to car, hoping to somehow outrun the zombies, even though they’re all essentially trapped onboard.

The film stops short of being or feeling claustrophobic; the train makes a stop and we catch a glimpse of the world outside the train. It’s a terrifying place, full of zombies. And I mean full. Part of Train to Busan‘s success is how well it visualizes a zombie outbreak in densely populated areas. There, zombie hordes press up against the edge of the world, to the point of overflowing.

Like most zombie movies, Train to Busan is populated by a number of character stereo-cum-archetypes, including perhaps one of the best/worst human villains to come along in a while. While it’s hard to fault a group of frightened, panicky survivors for making selfish decisions, their ringleader is singularly terrible. Even in death he ruins the lives of others, making it impossible to enjoy the moment. That kind of audience manipulation is seldom experienced in mainstream Hollywood genre fare. More to the point, Seok Woo’s efforts to survive the trip to Busan are underscored by a wholly unexpected personal journey precipitated by his antagonist.

Clocking in at just under two hours, Train to Busan is a tense ride. Right up to the very end, there’s no certainty as to who will live or die. And when death comes for the survivors, it’s genuinely upsetting—I can’t count how many zombie movies I’ve watched where I’m just running out the clock, waiting for people to die. Emotional investment should be the norm, not the exception, and for one hundred and eighteen minutes, I was completely invested in the survival of the poor souls on the train to Busan.

Train to Busan played with Divorced Dad. Divorced Dad is the recent short by Astron-6, the collective that gave the world Bio-Cop, Manborg. and The Editor, among others. In this episode of his cable access show, Divorced Dad is interviewing a handyman. When the feedback in his headphones becomes unbearable, Divorced Dad takes drastic measures to correct the problem. For the uninitiated, Divorced Dad is a weird, slightly off-putting experience. But for the all the Astron-6 fans out there, it’s a weird, slightly off-putting delight to behold.

Viewed at Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016