While Comic Con was well underway in Downtown San Diego on Friday, a smaller crowd of Korean film fans packed a movie theater in San Diego’s Mission Valley to watch the opening day screenings of Train to Busan. Premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Train to Busan stars acclaimed Korean actor Gong Yoo as an absent workaholic father escorting his estranged daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an), to visit her mother in Busan. As their bullet train pulls away at Seoul Station, Su-an witnesses a man being attacked on the platform while her father sleeps in the seat beside her. The following one hundred minutes depict a desperate fight for survival from a zombie apocalypse both on the train and off.
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan was preceded by Yeon’s animated zombie film, Seoul Station, that premiered in North America last month at New York’s Asian Film Festival. The live action thriller was meant to pick up where the animated film left off as the invasion of zombies in South Korea spread to surrounding regions. Released in South Korea less than a week ago, Train to Busan has broken numerous box office records, drawing 75% of all box office receipts in the country in its first weekend.
As with many horror films, the majority of characters fall victim to the undead. For the sake of not spoiling the film, the fate of each character won’t be divulged. The train passengers are a diverse mix of Koreans: inseparable elderly sisters; a high school baseball team and one of the player’s love interests; a pregnant woman and her brusque husband; the train’s conductor and stewards; and of course, the “bad guy”, a wealthier middle aged business executive willing to sacrifice anyone to save himself–transportation executive Yong-suk (Kim Ui-Seong),
The train’s conductor, played by Jeong Seok-Yong, rarely interacts directly with the train’s passengers, yet heroically attempts to save as many of them as possible and deliver them to the last safe haven in the country, Busan. Throughout the film, the spread of “infection” changes leaving passengers running for their lives in a number of the country’s train stations. Yoo’s character, Seok-woo, begins the journey willing to sacrifice anyone, including Jung Yu-Mi’s pregnant character Sung-kyung, in order to save himself and his child. This creates an obvious rift between Seok-Woo and Sung-kyung’s husband, Sang-hwa, played by Korean American actor Ma Dong-seok. As the film progresses and the passengers’ survival hinges on their teamwork, the change in Seok-woo’s demeanor towards his child and the other passengers softens. He develops a connection with Su-an’s surrogate mother on the train, Sung-Kyung, as she spends much of the film building a relationship with the child and protecting her from danger.
Following a disastrous attempt at finding shelter in what was thought to be a safe city, the passengers become separated. Paranoia among some lead to a deep division among the passengers.
Not nearly as gory as the other Asian zombie film I’ve seen in the last year, Japan’s Deadman Inferno, Train to Busan does what many Korean action films do. The film is a larger criticism of the struggle between the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the working class. The main character always has a fatal flaw, and there rarely is redemption for the protagonist who is anything but a “good guy”. The character development of the lead follows other Korean action films relatively closely, like those found in The Terror Live, Coin Locker Girl, Man From Nowhere, and another action film starring Yoo, The Suspect. What differs is that South Korea’s film industry doesn’t produce many zombie films as covered in Variety’s review of Train to Busan. The article’s writer, Maggie Lee, also did a wonderful job of breaking down the film’s larger critique of Korean society.
While the film exhibited many commonalities with other Korean films I’ve seen over the years, the acting was superb. Kim Su-an may be one of South Korea’s most talented child actors. At ten years old, she balanced her character masterfully as if she had been acting for decades. Gong Yoo over the past fifteen years has established himself as one of the most talented actors in the country. Yoo’s versatility and ability to measure the level of intensity a scene needs have made him one of the industry’s most in demand talents since his career-making portrayal of a rich and lazy heir in the television series, The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, a show so popular that an actual coffee shop by the same name exists today. Ma’s portrayal of a burly, working class man wasn’t overshadowed by the other characters, and despite a less illustrious resume than many of his co-stars, he is an actor to watch. With his upbringing in the U.S., it is not outside the realm of possibility that he might appear in Hollywood someday.
Train to Busan is showing in many U.S. cities this week. Critics’ from The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Los Angeles Times all gave the film positive reviews. As with many Asian films, their screenings are usually limited to one week and extended depending on ticket sales. You can find more information on screening locations at Well Go USA Entertainment.
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