It’s early morning and you have dragged yourself to the first train out of the city. Half asleep you barely acknowledge the other passengers around you, all equally brain dead and sluggish at that inhospitable hour. Would you notice if one was unwell? If their pale pallor was more than just tiredness but the encroaching infection of the undead?
Once those carriage doors close and the wheels begin speeding you to your destination, how would you react upon realising that you are trapped with creatures whose only desire is to tear the flesh from you as the main course in the buffet car suddenly becomes you? Would you help the other passengers or would you climb over them to escape? Train to Busan shows what some might do.
Workaholic executive and struggling single parent Seok Woo (Silenced‘s Yoo Gong) is trying to balance his obsessive dedication to his job with sole custody of his daughter Soo-an (Mad Sad Bad‘s Kim Su-An) and failing, his lack of connection evident as he returns home late on her birthday with a token gift, one he realises he had given her before on a previous poorly thought occasion.
Seeking to make up for this he asks Soo-an what she would really like and grudgingly accedes to her wish to see her mother, and together they take the morning high-speed rail to the city of Busan, their fellow passengers including a pair of elderly sisters on an adventure, a baseball team and their cheerleader, a standoffish executive, an attentive husband and his pregnant wife and untold others thinking of no more than a simple train ride, but as the doors slide closed an injured woman rushes on board out of sight of the other passengers.
The journey underway, a steward finds the woman convulsing on the floor and becomes the first to be infected, and like the express train itself the infection is very, very quick. The attackers are fast moving and their victims reanimate almost instantaneously, and within minutes the violence has spread and the frantic passengers flee the growing horde, the movie alive with the sudden surge in pace, the survivors accessing news and mobile networks to find outbreaks are happening in several cities, the Internet flooded with one repeating word: zombies.
Veering away from the heavily prosthetic decaying corpses currently popular in the near ubiquitous zombie movement, the need for excessive effects work is obviated in the recently deceased, keeping the focus on the creatures rather than the makeup. Through impressive contortion and physicality, especially with the initially infected, they are extremely aggressive and carry a creepy menace despite their agility.
Despite the situation, a good balance of is struck between self-interest and heroism and a good amount of gallows humour breaks up the tension, the varying tone keeping the wheels rolling. Few characters are straight up heroes or villains, each reacting differently to the threat, some running, others helping their fellow passengers without a thought for themselves. The desire for self-preservation building as the pressure increases, inevitably the characters begin to judge their survival chances against each other.
With a mix of superbly dry comic delivery and impressive ability in the fight sequences, protective soon-to-be-father Sang Hwa (The Good, The Bad, The Weird‘s Ma Dong-seok) is excellent and stands out in every scene, while his heavily pregnant partner Sung Gyeong (Silenced‘s Jung Yu-mi) also gives a wonderful performance.
Yoo Gong, because of the nature of his role is more reserved and therefore less engaging as a lead. While the framing device of his distant relationship with his daughter feels necessary for context, it is the least interesting element of the film, and although scared, young Soo-an is more comfortable engaging with other passengers than her father, Kim Su-An delivering a strong performance for a young actress, a mix of the reticence of her father contrasted with the desire to interact with others and heartbreaking emotion when she cries.
Among the other survivors are sportsman Young-gook (Pride and Prejudice’s Choi Woo-shik), a reluctant jock who gives a weaker performance as half of the possible-romance with Jin-hee (K-pop singer Ahn So-hee) who is far more engaging; while Choi’s slightly whiny role may not be the most desirable, he is irritatingly pathetic and his less prominent teammates are more entertaining.
Director Yeon Sang-Ho embarks on his first live action film with style and energy, and despite the main setting the scenes are not limited to the train and like Snowpiercer, another South Korean film set aboard a train, the constant motion holds the attention. No time is wasted in tedious discussions of what the creatures are, the imminent threat keeping everything moving with momentum throughout.
Best known for the animated features King of Pigs and The Fake, Sang-Ho also directed the animated prequel Seoul Station which acts as a companion piece set at the departure point of the titular train. While the zombie trend sees no sign of slowing down, the train to Busan is a surprisingly engaging and entertaining ride in a subgenre otherwise saturated with inescapable signs of decay.