“Sorry, but you’re infected”
Yeon Sang-ho’s South Korean action-horror film Train to Busan (2016) became the highest-grossing Korean film in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. And, seeing as its sequel was released in South Korea on July 15th 2020, it’s high time to delve into this film’s rattling world.
Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) has a strained relationship with his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Soo-Ahn). To make up for his negligent approach to fatherhood, and to get her off his back, he promises to take her back to her mother by train. Their journey quickly turns perilous, as a zombie contagion erupts in South Korea. Along with other passengers that include burly Sang-Hwa (Ma Dong-Seok) and his pregnant wife Sung-Gyeong (Jung Yu-mi), they must give in to their survival instinct to make it out alive.
The film relies heavily on not just our rational fear of blood-thirsty corpses, but also the implications of claustrophobic isolation. This, especially nowadays, strikes a nerve. Our protagonists are left friendless and helpless on-board an infected vehicle, but it’s not until their sense of seclusion spreads to the world beyond the train, that an ingrained weight is added. We see deserted train stations and smoking skyscrapers. What strips the story to a state of rawness is Lee Hyung-Deok’s delicately mesmerising cinematography, layering dusty shades of doom on top of the characters’ animated expressions.
Moreover, Jang Young-Gyu’s music hollows out our chests by building hallucinogenic sounds on top of thumping silence. The end result is a physical representation of the surreal peril our protagonists find themselves in. The lack of sound at times is strung so tightly, that its every echo heightens our senses. And then the bass strikes – like warning jungle drums.
As the South Korean horror series Kingdom (2019) has already reiterated, Koreans portray zombies like no-one else. The swiftly-moving, rotating pile of the putrid carcasses is reminiscent of the creatures depicted in World War Z (2013), but somehow appears far more menacing. Every single extra seemed possessed and ghastly in his dedication to the craft. What elevates the terror the creatures cause even further is Yeon Sang-ho’s shifting directorial style, presenting eye-catching long shots along with some documentary-style coverage of events.
However, aside from the realistic special effects and the casts’ chilling acting, we are presented with an emotive story, which most horror films lack. It is first-and-foremost a family drama, woven into a smothering story of challenged altruism and human self-preservation. The figure of an inattentive father is dumped into deep waters and forced to endure an onslaught of growing pains. His ultimate test comes in the form of an agonising sacrifice, staying true to the renowned Eastern-style ending.
Amidst the grit of the world, we witness a budding father’s journey. In fact, we are presented with a wide range of heroic characters, from baseball bat-brandishing teenagers to overweight businessmen. Of course, there are a few cowardly villains, but their wickedness seems to be a representation of our own despicable cruelty.
On more than one occasion, humans resemble vastly more grotesque monsters than the zombies themselves. And therein lies the appeal of the film. Layered, but not sliced, it offers a multitude of flavours.
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