Opening with an ominous shot of roadkill twisting back to life, the film then centers around fund manager Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo), a divorced workaholic dad who tries but never quite gets to understand his neglected daughter Su-an (Kim Su-An) better. Having bungled one promise too many, Seok-Woo reluctantly decides to fulfill his daughter’s birthday wish to accompany her on a 202-mile train ride from Seoul to Busan so that she can see her mother. It isn’t until the duo and other passengers are a quarter-way into their train ride with an infected stowaway do they realize that all hell is breaking loose.
Let me get something out of the way: the zombie genre has worn me out. Be it on film or on TV, it doesn’t matter. If it’s not an ultra-violent black comedy with social commentary ala the great George A. Romero, or an all-out gorefest by Peter Jackson, it’s a boring melodrama which wallows in post-apocalyptic guilt and psuedo-grit – TV’s The Walking Dead falls victim to this despite having some fairly solid moments. The only recent one which I found interesting was Maggie with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin, and even that one wallowed in depressing father-daughter grief.
Gentlemen, once again, this is solid proof of why we should not underestimate South Korean cinema anymore. This is a zombie film crossed with an intense disaster picture, and a pretty darn good one. Despite having a lack of gore, writer/director Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan delivers with the R-rated intensity and humanism both World War Z and TWD wishes they had, respectively.
The film is ferocious in its suspense and thrills once the first attack commences, rarely letting up. These zombies run fast and bite hard, and the intensity is captured well here and with energy by Yeon with mostly stable camera shots and tight close-ups to emphasize the claustrophobia of being cramped in a crowded train corridor; with a standout scene involving survivors crawling in the overhead baggage compartments to avoid the zombies shambling about below.
Yeon, an animation director making his live-action debut here, handles the CGI of the zombie hordes with grounded restraint and amazing fluidity, one-upping similar but overblown effects used in WWZ. The music, too, hums ominously in what I believe to be a salute to Romero’s understated music in his first three (and much superior) Dead movies. Another brilliant factor played here is the palpable sense of plausibility that echoes throughout the film – one will believe such behavior by the uninfected would most definitely apply in real-world physics.
For a zombie film, the characters here are very well written and behave plausibly. They’re not saints and some of them are sinners, but by God they will survive, either by fighting the horde head-on, or (in the case of some pissants) throwing them in harm’s way. Seok-Woo, the dad as portrayed by Gong is not a perfect father by any means, in fact he can be described as a weak man; but he gradually learns to man the hell up and rise to the occasion to save his little girl, both by his own desperation and from advice by a big guy named Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok, cool cat here) who is travelling with his pregnant wife. The film does get genuinely emotional at times, especially with its poignancy and in scenes involving child actress Kim Su-An, who remarkably does not overstay her welcome as most kid actors would.
To round off the Irwin Allen ensemble, the other characters include a bunch of lovey-dovey high school students, a snappy pair of elderly sisters, and a nasty bureaucrat played by Kim Eui-sung who may very well end up as one of the year’s most hated film villains, solely based on how cruel and selfish he is. Hollywood would have sugarcoated the violence and asks reasonably for certain pissants to be “understood”. I believe in karma in the movies, especially when selfish bastards get their just desserts, and this film succeeded in spinning the karma wheel.
The film’s success has rumors of greenlit sequel underway, and there’s an animated prequel called Seoul Station, also written and directed by Yeon, that’s due for a Western release. Though unlikely, if Yeon returns in a major capacity, I’d like more of these in the future.