Train to Busan
This South Korean zombie flick starts as a commuter passes through a roadblock that has been set up because of a leak at a Biotech park. Soon afterwards he accidentally runs over a deer. Cursing his ill luck, he pushes it aside onto the highway and continues on his journey - not noticing afterwards as this seemingly dead animal gets back on its feet again.
Meanwhile fund manager Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) buys a Wii as a birthday present for his daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim), not noticing that she already has one. He apologises and asks what she would like instead, and she asks him to take her to see her estranged mother in Busan as he had promised to do so on several occasions - but was too busy with his job to have time.
Seok ultimately agrees to take the express train with her from Seoul to Busan. While they are starting their journey a number of odd incidents occur around them - reports of rioting breaking out in cities throughout the country, buildings going up in flames, strange outbreaks of crazed behaviour from passengers aboard the train. It soon transpires that there is a huge outbreak of zombification taking place, and it’s starting to overwhelm carriage after carriage on the train itself.
The whole zombie sub-genre has been so heavily oversubscribed in recent years that it’s now rather difficult to invest any creativity in it. Train to Busan almost succeeds. The first half of the film is great in a sort of “Nightmare City meets Cassandra Crossing (but without the late 70s Euro cheese)” sort of way. In some scenes we get neat character development around the perpetually over-busy father/disappointed daughter dynamic, and some quite amusing establishing scenes with the various secondary characters on the train ride. We get a couple of elderly ladies, one of them strangely nostalgic for South Korea’s pre-democracy days. We get a baseball team with a lovestruck cheerleader (Sohee) in tow. We also get a pregnant woman named Sung (Yu-mi Jeong) and his boorish husband Sang (Dong-seok Ma). Surrounding these scenes we are given various vignette-style glimpses of the chaos erupting around them. As establishing material goes it’s some of the most well-paced and entertaining I’ve seen in a long time.
When the full-on zombie attacks start they are effectively terrifying, making maximum capital out of weight of numbers within confined spaces. The film also cleverly establishes the physics and boundaries of their behaviour; lacking cognitive abilities or any drive beyond the ravenous compulsion to devour living flesh they plough unrelentingly on a direct trajectory towards their next victim, piling over each other to be first in line for the moving morsel in front of them. They are stumped by simple mechanisms such as train doors, and have no deductive abilities that might make them seek out potential victims they can’t see or hear. These nuances are played up for effective moments of suspense. Sang-ho Yeon has a pleasing filming style, mixing the freneticism of the ferocious zombie attacks with some heart-stopping use of slo-mo and impressive bird’s-eye shots of the train amid the destruction of the vast surrounding landscape - recalling John Frankenheimer’s superlative The Train.
If you have read the review up until this point you might get an overwhelmingly positive impression of the film. Likewise, after seeing the first hour you might come to the conclusion that this is a modern horror classic. However, after this there is still an hour of runtime left with nowhere else to go. It just boils down to endless scenes of our main characters running away from or fending off the hordes. It becomes monotonous and exhausting. Worse, while the tone of earlier scenes points towards some entertaining humour and character development it switches to a rather downbeat and maudlin feel as we near the conclusion. The transition is just jarring and unsatisfying. Don’t get me wrong; films don’t have to be escapist fun to be worthwhile (I, Daniel Blake for example), but to initially go that way and then turn 180 degrees is just like giving the audience candy and then slapping them hard in the face.
It’s a truly disappointing affair, especially since - with a couple of different creative decisions - it could have been a superlative zombie-filled train ride.
Runtime: 118 mins
Dir: Sang-ho Yeon
Script: Sang-ho Yeon
Starring: Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Sohee