Review: South Korean Zombie Thriller TRAIN TO BUSAN



SHOCK reviews kinetic South Korean zombie horror film TRAIN TO BUSAN.

While South Korea has been producing some top notch horror films and suspense thrillers for quite some time, they might be one of the few leading countries for genre cinema that doesn’t produce a glut of zombie films. It’s not that Asian folklore isn’t peppered with its own legends of the undead rising from the grave, but it seems, perhaps quite rightfully given their geographic closeness to North Korea, that they have more to fear from the living than they do from the dead.

It’s not much of a shock then that the zombies-on-a-train thrill ride TRAIN TO BUSAN plays like a cross between SNOWPIERCER and DAWN OF THE DEAD (both Romero’s and Snyder’s). It’s a high octane action flick in horror movie trappings with a healthy dose of modern cultural subtext. In many ways, TRAIN TO BUSAN is exactly what one would probably expect from hearing the premise, but anime veteran Yeon Sang-ho (in his first live action feature effort) maximizes the amount of fun, thrills, scares, and action set pieces he can get out of the material.

The main protagonist is workaholic hedge fund manager Seok Woo (Korean heartthrob Yoo Gong) who’s quickly losing touch with his young daughter (Kim Su-an). All the little girl wants for her birthday – one that has been botched again thanks to daddy’s inattentiveness – is to see her mother in Busan. Knowing he can’t screw up again, Seok agrees to accompany his daughter on an early morning train ride from Seoul to Busan before racing back to work to deal with a crisis. Just as the train leaves the station, a massive outbreak of something or other starts causing people to snap and become violent, leading to rioting and mass murder throughout Korea. One of the people infected with this animalistic bloodlust (which is transmitted through bites and acts very, very quickly) has stowed away on the train. Things get out of control in a hurry, and people from different social classes have to band together or fight each other for survival aboard a train where the conductor can’t decide if the safest move is to stop or to keep going.

Sang-ho takes his time laying everything out, proving to be masterful in the art of escalating tension and action. While there are glimpses of something amiss throughout the first thirty minutes, Sang-ho prefers letting the viewer get to know Seok, his daughter, and a handful of other passengers on the train. There’s a pair of old ladies, one of whom is vastly more generous and thoughtful than the other. There’s a high school baseball team where one of the kids has a flirtation with a girl who has tagged along for the trip. There’s the conductor and a pair of ineffective hospitality attendants. Then there’s a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) and her working class husband Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), with whom the uppity Seok will first clash before eventually teaming up with him because this guy is the exact kind of no-bullshit ass kicker the train needs in such a crisis.

At first, it feels like TRAIN TO BUSAN will become a simple “point A to point B” kind of plot. Seok’s daughter gets trapped in a washroom on a car overrun with zombies, and he’ll have to plot a way to cross from a car full of uninfected survivors and through certain death to get her back. Then a wrinkle arises once the train makes a stop in an attempt to get everyone to safety. Things go horribly awry, and a scene straight out of WORLD WAR Z erupts with literal waves of zombies crashing into each other as they descend upon their victims. Some of the survivors, including some of the ones I previously mentioned, make their way back to the train along with a moustache-twirlingly evil transportation CEO (Kim Eui-sung, gunning for the asshole of the year award) who demands the conductor take the train to Busan so he can selfishly get home and hopefully to safety.

That’s when the SNOWPIERCER and DAWN OF THE DEAD comparisons kick in, and while it’s a nice touch, it’s not exactly the most original idea. It’s certainly effective, though. Seok and a handful of survivors are now stranded at the back of the train, while the evil businessman at the front endeavors to not let anyone else in their now protected car at the front of the locomotive. It’s a classic story of the haves versus the have nots writ large, and one where Seok will have to heed his daughter’s advice that being nice to people does more for humanity than a relentless sense of self-preservation and cutthroat ethics.

Sang-ho effortlessly keeps the momentum of the film going despite the largely claustrophobic setting of a speeding train. While some elements seem to be blatantly riffing on SNOWPIERCER, there’s still a lot of fun to be had. The action sequences are inspired, flashy, and often relentless, offering a lot more bone crunching brutality than gore. Some might also balk at the film’s highly athletic “fast zombies,” or even question whether or not these actually qualify as zombies to some genre purists, but those thoughts should quickly go away for most thanks to Sang-ho’s playful, intuitive direction and a wealth of twists that most viewers won’t see coming.

TRAIN TO BUSAN doesn’t reinvent the zombie genre, but it isn’t trying to. Sang-ho’s film wants to entertain using genre conventions in new, creative ways. It gave me exactly what I wanted and expected from the premise. Sometimes that’s all you need, and Sang-ho more than clear the admittedly low set bar he was trying to clear. It’s a blast that’s just as smart, scary, and exciting as it needs to be. It’s definitely worth checking out when it comes to theaters this weekend in roughly two dozen cities across the U.S. and Canada.