Blockbuster ‘Train to Busan’ Opens Doors to More Asian Zombie Pics

Train to Busan Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

When “Train to Busan” smashed box office records in South Korea, the local film industry was surprised that a zombie pic could be such a success. The Next Entertainment World release has been seen by 11.56 million Koreans — technically a fifth of the population — after two months in release, becoming the biggest hit of the year.

“The film’s social message, its brilliant visual treat, and quick pace that are perfect for a summer blockbuster, as well as its fun and originality in fine balance, have all together contributed to its success,” says June Park, director of NEW’s film business. “It is the first Korean blockbuster that tells a zombie story with such a great amusement.”

Indeed, one can count Korean zombie films on the fingers of one hand with ease. It wasn’t too long ago that disaster movies with monstrous creatures were considered guaranteed box office failure.

“Around 2011-2012, there were quite a few zombie movies in Chungmuro [the district in Seoul where much of the country’s film production is located], but they were all stopped in the middle of development stages because it was deemed that they lack commercial viability,” says Yeon Sang-ho, director of “Train.” Even NEW had once discouraged Yeon from making his zombie animation pic, “Seoul Station,” which later became a prequel to “Train.”

How things have changed. Zombie is no longer considered as a taboo subject in commercial films in South Korea. Another big title of the year, Na Hong-jin’s occult thriller “The Wailing” also briefly features a zombie and the audiences found the creature rather enjoyable — the film grossed $50.2 million at the box office during its theatrical run. It also unspooled in the Cannes Film Festival.

“The younger generation has been exposed to diverse types of contents through the internet. These include foreign zombie films such as ‘World War Z’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ [TV] series,” Yeon says. “Also, there have been [many] web cartoons featuring zombies. I think the young people have been familiarized with the concept of zombies and innovative genre movies through those experiences.”

“Train to Busan” broke numerous box office records in its home country. Among its records are one for the highest single day gross, $9.90 million from 1.28 million admissions. It is continuing to blaze through the box office across Asia.

According to Contents Panda, NEW’s subsidiary that handled international sales for “Train,” the movie has made $8.88 million in Hong Kong, $9.56 million in Taiwan, and $3.84 million in Singapore, as of Sept. 20. “Train” has comfortably beaten all previous Korean releases in those territories and become the biggest Korean film of all time.

“We believe ‘Train’ could easily appeal to the foreign audience, due to its nature as an amusement movie,” Park says. “Anyone can enjoy ‘Train’ without having to understand the story’s context from a Korean-specific perspective.”

After such a record-breaking success, there is talk of a “Train” sequel.

“Because I’ve been asked so much about the sequel, I sometimes ask myself whether I should do it, or what kind of approach I should take, if I do,” says Yeon. “ ‘Train’ was, however, not developed as a series to begin with, and I have no plan for its sequel for now.”

Instead, as he watches his movie being re-created in numerous parodies, Yeon thinks “zombie” has now become a popular trope in the country and believes that more undead films will follow.

“I hear that investors have been pitched many zombie-tinged scripts since the success of ‘Train,’” he says. “But I hope to see some new types of zombie movies, rather than another ‘Train’-esque action blockbuster. For example, ‘World War Z’ and ‘Warm Bodies’ are both zombie movies, but they’re totally different in terms of tone and manner.”

He suggests that top Korean web cartoonist Kang Full’s zombie story, “Every Moment of Your Life,” could be a great screen adaptation to succeed “Train.” “Your Life” is a romance cartoon about zombies that remember the last moments of their lives as human beings. In 2011, Kang and production house Chungerorahm signed a screen adaptation deal for “Your Life,” but it has yet to be made.

Spotlight on two new generation directors:

Kim Seong-hun

Kim Seong-hun’s “A Hard Day,” a crime thriller that premiered in Cannes in 2014, made him an internationally known helmer. But it took him seven years to mount his next feature after his debut in 2006 with “How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men.”

It wasn’t hard to get his debut financed — following the success of Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” and Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy,” conglomerates rushed to invest in films and it became relatively easier for new directors to make their first films. But comedy-drama “Two Men” received little attention and he had trouble wrangling his second feature.

“For me, the crisis turned into a real opportunity — because I had so much free time, I could focus on writing scripts and think about stories that I would really like to tell,” Kim says.

“Day,” the slick actioner that boasted smart social satire with a touch of black comedy was critically acclaimed and a moderate success at the Korean box office.

That opened doors for his 2016 film, “The Tunnel,” the third-biggest local film of the year with 7 million admissions (about $51 million gross), and Kim’s most expensive film so far. The disaster movie sees a man’s struggle to survive under the debris of a broken tunnel. Though the film is all about the sanctity of human life, his signature black humor still peppers the pic.

“When addressing a heavy message — especially a social message — in a commercial film, I believe the best way to deliver it is to wrap the message with a layer of fun,” says Kim.

Yeon Sang-ho

For years, Yeon Sang-ho was best-known for his dark, misanthropic indie animation, such as his first Cannes title, “The King of Pigs.”

But Yeon’s zombie live-action blockbuster “Train to Busan” not only surprised the entertainment industry, it also set Korean box office records in July, opening on 1,785 screens July 20 and earning $34.3 million from 4.75 million admissions over its opening five-day run, representing 75% of the total weekend box office.

“I have always had live-action filmmaking in mind,” Yeon says. In fact, after the success of his second animated feature, “Fake,” he had been offered a few live-action projects, which he turned down. “I found it hard to direct a film based on a script written by someone else,” Yeon adds.

When Kyung Ik Jang, president of investor-distributor Next Entertainment World, saw an early cut of his Yeon’s animated “Seoul Station,” he was so impressed that he immediately suggested a live-action version. Yeon pitched a sequel, instead of a mere live-action adaptation, which became “Train.”

“Train” is getting an English-language remake, and Yeon is getting offers to direct in Hollywood.

“I keep asking myself — would ‘Fake’ have been a hit in theaters if I made it as a commercial live-action film? Creating a story is equally laborious, whether it’s for an animation or a live-action film. I wish they were appreciated by more people when released,” he says.

A genre buff himself, he is interested making more genre-drama hybrids, especially an eight-episode miniseries. “‘Train,’ a genre blockbuster, toppled the box office. I see that the Korean audience is now ready to watch some real genre dramas on TV or platforms like Netflix too,” says Yeon.

But for now, he’s got another live-action film, “Psychokinesis,” on tap, with a 2018 release date.