Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
(Korean with English subtitles)
Directed by: Yeon Sang-Ho
Written by: Park Joo-Suk
Starring: Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-Seok, Jung Yu-Mi, Kim Su-An, Kim Eui-Sung, Choi Woo-Shik & Ahn So-Hee
Zombies. They’ve pretty much been done to death at this point (pun fully intended). What George A. Romero began in 1968 with his groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has now been reduced to a weekly soap opera and hundreds of crappy films that look like they were shot in someone’s backyard. In a sea of undead mediocrity, occasional gems stick out…like South Korean blockbuster TRAIN TO BUSAN. Filled with fleshed-out characters, loads of suspense, and genuine emotion, TRAIN TO BUSAN is an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride that will rock your world.
Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo) is a busy guy. He’s dealing with a painful divorce, is swamped at the office, and struggles to be a good father to his young daughter Su-An (Kim Su-An). After botching up a birthday present, Seok-Woo agrees to take Su-An on an hour-long commute to visit her mother/his ex-wife. They board the Seoul high-speed train and set off on what should be a boring trip. The simple train ride turns into an apocalyptic nightmare when a zombie virus begins wreaking havoc…and an infected person brings the undead sickness onboard. Aided by a band of fellow passengers, Seok-Woo and Su-An try to survive the escalating undead pandemic. I promise this movie is way better than my plot synopsis makes it sound.
TRAIN TO BUSAN nails a crucial piece of quality horror: the characters! All of these individuals are worth caring about and I grew to love many of them. Gong Woo plays Seok-Woo as an unlikable selfish businessman who goes through a believable progression into a courageous hero. Delivering the coolest scenes of the entire movie, Ma Dong-Seok is bad-ass father-to-be Sang-Hwa. This hero provides the film’s biggest laughs as well as a number of stellar action scenes. Jung Yu-Mi adds emotional stakes as Hwa’s pregnant wife Seong-Kyeong. Supporting characters jock Yong-Gook (Choi Woo-Shik) and cheerleader Jin-Hee (Ahn So-Hee) have a compelling subplot as friends separated by train cars of flesh-eating zombies.
The great characters don’t stop there though! Ten-year-old Kim Su-An delivers a heartbreaking performance as vulnerable daughter Su-An. This child’s performance was close to giving me an anxiety attack. Her crying, screaming and puppy dog eyes inject believable emotions into the main plot…as well as her character’s touching story arc. Meanwhile, Kim Eui-Sung’s reminds us why humans make the best villains in zombie movies. Sung’s performance as a self-centered businessman is absolutely infuriating, which meant that he accomplished his job with flying colors. Other small performances are worth mentioning as well, but I won’t go into them because part of TRAIN’s fun comes from seeing how certain passengers come into play and which ones wind up as dinner. The fact that I cared about these characters made things much more upsetting when one of them was bitten or brutally killed.
TRAIN is populated by fast-moving zombies that resemble those of WORLD WAR Z, piling on top of one another. That trait is masterfully executed in this film and doesn’t become overused to the point of being laughable (see WORLD WAR Z’s Jerusalem scene). In most scenes, the undead monsters move in a herky-jerky manner that seems carried over from creepy Asian ghost movies. There’s also another idea behind these zombies that I won’t spoil, but brilliantly makes them unique as many suspenseful scenarios play out. This film’s set pieces are intense and exciting, utilizing action tropes in fresh ways. Most of the special effects look great, though a couple of cheesy moments stick out for the wrong reason (e.g. a totally unnecessary prologue) and one distracting fire effect briefly took me out of the film. For the most part though, the film’s cinematography is slick and clearly had a budget behind it.
Strong acting and great writing launch TRAIN TO BUSAN above run-of-the-mill zombie fare that we’ve seen time and time again. Though the set-up is simple, the film milks a lot of scary scenarios out of the claustrophobic setting. The characters are worth caring about and each story arc was carefully crafted into the plot. A few unexpected twists make this zombie flick far more compelling and emotional than one might expect. I especially dug the running parallel between the protagonist and antagonist, both of whom start off as selfish individuals and then go down two very different paths in the face of danger. TRAIN TO BUSAN is exciting, suspenseful, entertaining and surprisingly emotional. This isn’t just one of 2016’s best horror films, it’s the best zombie movie in ages!