MIFF Review: Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016) may have just changed the Zombie genre

If 2014’s World War Z set a precedent for anything, it was that you can unequivocally produce a zombie flick without copious amounts of gore and severed limbs and still have it be entertaining. South Korean film Train to Busan follows this blueprint and improves upon it in a number of of satisfying ways.

When Gong-Yoo finds himself in troubled waters with his daughter Kim Su-an, he reluctantly agrees to take her home to her mother in Busan via train. Mid-commute, the passengers learn of a recent biological outbreak the hard way, as the train is overrun by the undead.

Train to Busan is less 1978 Dawn of the Dead and more Zack Snyder remake in terms of the ferocity of its undead and the make-up department and minds behind the design of the zombies should be given a hell of a lot of credit. Bones audibly crack as people rise from the dead and transform and their snap-like reflexes are unnerving. Like World War Z, these zombies are voluminous and their unrelenting assault for flesh is gripping. One scene sees one zombie after another dropping out of a train station window and landing in everyone’s path. Just when you think that moments like this can’t be bettered, Busan keeps reinventing the wheel.

In fact, Busan shines the brightest when it aims for tension. Certain scenes slow down or become muted before something alarming happens and director Yeon Sang-ho manages to put his characters in seemingly inescapable situations. Busan is a clinic in suspensful horror, expertly taking advantage of its unique premise and limited environment.

The most surprising aspect of Busan however is its wonderful focus on benevolence and love. Rather than being shoehorned in, writer Park Joo-suk has given his narrative an overarching theme of altruism, even creating archetypes that drive it home. Its payoff, although a tad predictable succeeds due to the perfect amount of time this motif has been given.

There is a generous amount of screen time given to the cast too. Characters emotional states are fittingly explored and Joo-suk has forged believable and grounded relationships. Busan can be truly heart breaking, a feat for the genre up that up until this point, only The Walking Dead has been able to pull off. Going in, I never expected such a heavily touted action film to have as much heart as Busan does, and I’m glad I was wrong.

I can’t say enough good things about Train to Busan. It’s well paced, beautifully written and delivers tense, adrenaline-fuelled action in spades. And beneath all of the over the top spectacle, is an undercurrent of sentimentality with a poignant message and likable characters to support it. Train to Busan has done something for the zombie genre. Time will tell what its influence will be exactly; whether it means we see tension over gore or story and characters being every bit the attraction that the action is, but it has officially put horror filmmakers on notice.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Train to Busan was screened and reviewed as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.