South Korean film “Train to Busan” combines one of my least favorite movie subjects with one of my most favorite movie subjects: zombie and train. As you have already guessed, this is basically another typical zombie movie in which a group of ordinary characters struggle to stay or run away from a sudden zombie epidemic, but the movie is scary and thrilling enough to fix us on the edge of our sear during most of its running time, and it also plays well with its refreshing premise while relentlessly passing by its plot points one by one as demanded.
After the unsettling opening sequence which announces a disaster on the horizon in advance, the movie moves onto its hero’s one bad day. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a fund manager working in Seoul, and he is trying to deal with an unexpected trouble associated with some biotechnology company he has recently invested. While occupied with this annoying problem, he manages to prepare the birthday present for his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-an), but he only finds himself disappointing her while being reminded again of how lousy he has been as her father.
Because Soo-an really wants to see her mother who moved away to Busan after her divorce, Seok-woo decides to take a half day-off for accompanying her on their express train to Busan. Although they happen to witness a big accident on their way to the train station during the early next morning, everything mostly looks quiet and normal in the city, and we see them and other passengers going on board one by one before the departure time of their train.
Not long after the train leaves the station, Seok-woo and other passengers slowly begin to sense that something weird is going on outside. They see TV news reports about numerous violent incidents which are happening in Seoul with no apparent reason, and the government continues to emphasize that there is nothing to be alarmed about, though this ongoing situation seems to be getting worse and worse with more rampages in the city.
Of course, this is just the beginning of a zombie epidemic to sweep across most of the country, and the movie steadily increases its level of tension step by step until it reaches the expected breaking point in the end. Once one unfortunate passenger eventually goes into that fully violent and infectious mode, it does not take much time for most of other passengers to be transformed into a horde of raging zombies not so different from what we saw from “28 Days Later…” (2002), and Seok-woo must do anything to save himself and his daughter from this terrifying circumstance.
As the train keeps staying on its course to Busan, the movie presents several impressive sequences packed with dread, suspense, horror, and action. At one point, there is a frightening moment when surviving passengers belatedly realize an imminent danger waiting right in front of them, and then we get a suspenseful scene when Seok-woo and a few other characters must be very careful in their every small movement for evading zombies. While the zombies in the movie do not bring anything new to their genre, they do look scary and daunting in their murderous group behaviors, and they are effectively utilized to make us involved in what is at stake for our endangered living characters during their desperate action scenes.
The characters in the movie are simple and broad to say the least, but I guess that comes with the territory, and you may recognize its various stereotype characters with amusement as its supporting cast members fill each own spot as required. We have a pregnant lady and her hulking husband; two old ladies who occasionally bicker with each other; a high school baseball team player and his pretty cheerleader girlfriend; a selfish businessman prick who spells out troubles right from his first appearance; a train conductor and a train engineer who are trying to deal with the situation way over their head; and a questionable stowaway who seems to be still frightened by whatever he saw before getting on the train. As Gong Yoo’s earnest performance holds the center even during the most frantic moments in the film, other notable South Korean performers including Ma Dong-seok, Jeong Yu-mi, and Kim Ee-seong are also effective in their supporting roles, and young actress Kim Soo-an handles well her rather sentimental scenes with Gong.
“Train to Busan” is the first live-action feature film by the director/wrtier Yeon Sang-ho, who previously directed two animation feature films “The King of Pigs” (2011) and “The Fake” (2013). Both of these moody and disturbing animation films were utterly uncomfortable but compelling works which trembled me a lot with its dark, brutal insights on the South Korean society, and I can tell you that a number of certain scenes in “Train to Busan” will probably resonate with South Korean audiences for good reasons. While watching those scenes, I could not help but think of the MERS virus outbreak which happened in South Korea during last summer – and how that outbreak was widely spread around the country mainly thanks to the stupendous incompetence and ignorance of our government as our society was thrown into the panic over that outbreak.
Although it unfortunately loses some of its narrative momentum during its last act coupled with arbitrary melodramatic moments, “Train to Busan” remains to be an entertaining genre piece with enough goodies to thrill and excite us, and Yeon makes a solid forward step into the mainstream as demonstrating his considerable filmmaking skills here. The movie made me frightened for what might happen for its characters, and I think I will be a little more watchful in the next time when I get on a train.