The latest film from acclaimed South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho, “Train to Busan,” is an ambitious and visceral zombie apocalypse thriller that has taken the world by storm. Although it opened in late July, the film is already expected to cross the $100 million mark at the global box office later this month.
The film marks the director’s first foray into live action film, as Sang-ho previously made highly praised animated films “The King of Pigs” (2011) and “The Fake” (2013). Sang-ho recently spoke about his transition from animated to live-action films in an interview with Korean Film Biz Zone.
“I feel some pressure. But on the other hand, I have high expectations for the film since the project will allow me to focus on directing,” he told the outlet. “While making animations, in addition to directing, I have to engage in various tasks such as writing screenplays, drawing and painting, composition and editing. But I can focus on directing during production of ‘Busan.’ Also, the specialized production staffs are giving me a big helping hand. I think I will receive more help from them in the future.”
While Sang-ho’s previous experience with animation clearly comes through in the scenes CGI-laden action sequences, filming these scenes was not always easy for the cast. As the young actress Kim Su-an also told Korean Film Biz Zone, “While we were on location, we had to do over twenty takes, both because of the CGI work they would do later and also some focus problems.”
However, the filming issues did not stop with the special effects. The film’s star, Gong Yoo, described the issues he faced when learning how to fight zombies in a recent chat with online outlet Soompi. “I’ve filmed realistic action films before so I thought they were doable, but fighting with the zombies was extremely complicated,” he told the outlet. “Even if I try to match their movements, their bodies are always convulsing and their arms twisted, so when they attack it’s hard to take it from the receiving end. It’s also difficult to figure out where to hit them during fight scenes because zombies are always moving.”
While the west is relatively numb to zombie films, they remain an unexplored territory for South Korea. In fact, it was the film’s genre that initially attracted Gong Yoo to the part. He said as much in a recent interview with Korean Film Biz Zone. “I didn’t choose this film as a way of adapting my image or in order to show a new side of myself,” he told the outlet. “Instead, I chose it because it’s the first zombie blockbuster in Korea and I think it’s meaningful to try new things in cinema.”
Much like Sang-ho’s fellow countryman, Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 sci-fi film “Snowpiercer” (which also involves a train), “Train to Busan” has a class conflict element to it. Throughout his career, Sang-ho has not shied away from tackling social issues. “The Fake” provided a critique of organized religion while “The King of Pigs” was also a class conflict allegory.
Nevertheless, Sang-ho isn’t sure how his latest film will be read by audiences. “The new film still tells a story about classes. But this film is less explicit in showing the theme. I am really curious about how audiences will respond to it,” he told Korean Film Biz Zone. “According to the investment company, the first half has similar characteristics to my previous films, but the second half is like a genre film loaded with a lot of action.”
So far, it seems that critics have definitely taken notice of the class conflict at the film’s center. Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times briefly summarized the film as “a public-transportation horror movie with a side helping of class warfare.”
While “Train to Busan” continues to surge at the box office, Sang-ho has returned to his roots by making an animated prequel, “Seoul Station,” which premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August. The success of “Train to Busan” has led to to talk of a possible sequel. Sang-ho recently addressed this, telling Soompi, “I suppose since Ma Dong Seok‘s character is living on as a zombie, they could do a sequel from his character’s perspective.”
While it remains to be seen if a sequel will indeed materialize, with the film’s growing popularity, it appears that the demand will be great.