For regular readers, you know two things about me – I love Asian horror and I’m just about fed up with zombie movies. So, imagine my conflicted feelings as I sat down to watch the much-hyped Train to Busan, a zombie apocalypse film from South Korea. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, whose previous work has largely been in animated features, Train to Busan has a distinctly Western feel in execution that I assume will make it more palatable for the masses in the West, unlike the more culturally-specific The Wailing from the same country this year. That broad appeal does not imply a lack of focus or a watering-down of its elements. Surprisingly, Train to Busan has quickly become one of the great zombie epics of cinema.
Gong Yoo stars as Sok-woo, a fund manager separated from his wife and juggling the care of his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-an), with the aid of his mother. Truth be told, he’s not doing such a great job of it. His work has become his life, and even his own mother chides Sok-woo for missing his daughter’s recent recital and suggests that Sok-woo is missing his daughter’s childhood. Soo-an is eager to return to Busan to be with her mother, despite Sok-woo’s protests regarding the trip. Nonetheless, the day of Soo-an’s birthday, father and daughter climb aboard the titular train.
One of the great things about Train to Busan is how economical it is. Yes, we spend time setting up Sok-woo and his daughter and the intricacies of their strained relationship, but it is done efficiently and we are on to zombie action in short order. We quickly realize that news reports of rioting (that old chestnut) are more widespread than initially reported, and as the train leaves the station headed for Busan, we already see victims falling on the platform, leading to an infected stowaway on board.
Let me pause to talk about Busan‘s zombies. While not reinvented for this film, we discard some matters that are inessential to the story, like shooting them in the brain or similar methods of disposal, in favor of making these zombies true predators, and intensely frightening. Characterized by rabid behavior and distinct blue veins, these zombies move quick, focused entirely on their prey. The incubation period is slight, so newly-infected passengers quickly become part of the growing horde of quick-moving, mindless eating machines. Similar to the inferior World War Z, Train to Busan‘s living dead pile atop one another in their pursuit of new flesh top munch, and some of the scenes of cascading piles of writhing bodies are more tense and effective than I’ve seen in any movie I can think of.
The character work in Busan is remarkable, too. We have the journey of Sok-woo as he realizes the schism between himself and his daughter and the eventual discovery of how deep his life for her runs, but that’s nothing new for this kind of film. What makes the movie so much fun is the supporting cast. Ma Dong-seok is a standout as Sang Hwa, a no-nonsense tough guy caring for his pregnant wife. Likewise, Sohee as Jin-hee, dedicated girlfriend to Choi Woo-sik’s baseball star, and their relationship is unexpected and fun. Even the villainous Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung) is not overplayed, but given just the right amount of understandable panic and revolting self-preservation.
All of this builds and builds, moving off and on the train as the story progresses, into a satisfying conclusion that hits all the right and well-earned emotional beats. While the theme of familial bonds rings true, it’s also coupled with the idea of selflessness vs selfishness in the wake of disaster in a manner that never falls into didactic lecture. This is a special movie, fun and tense and emotionally rewarding. Throw in some more-than-adequate zombie thrills and you have one of the finest horror films of the year. This is essential viewing.