The current South Korean box office champ (also playing in select US theaters), Train to Busan, is a zombie disaster movie in the World War Z mold, but with far more guts and grue and far less Hollywood flab. The action is confined largely to the interior of a speeding train, and for most of its runtime, the flick maintains the intensity of a thrill ride. Animator-turned-live-action-director Yeon Sang-ho makes sure that we don’t lose track of the characters amidst all the bleeding, chasing, and hiding, and even the most hardhearted gorehound might find a lump in their throat and tears on their cheeks by the time those end credits roll.
Our story begins, as so many movies do, with a neglectful father. Busy busy businessman Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) has already wrecked his marriage with his devotion to work, and he’s starting to lose his young elementary-school-age daughter Su-An (Kim Su-An). In anticipation of his daughter’s birthday, he buys her a Nintendo Wii, failing to notice that he already bought her one that she never bothered to open. To make up for it, he agrees to take the morning off and travel with Su-An by train to see her mother a few hours away in Busan.
It doesn’t take very long for the shit to hit the fan, as a biochemical agent starts creating speedy, bite-y zombies in South Korea’s major cities. One of the bitten makes her way onto the train and the infection starts spreading through the passengers like wildfire. There is no way to uncouple the infected cars from the rest of the train, so the survivors, which also include a pregnant woman and her bear of a husband, a nerdy baseball player and the cheerleader he has a crush on, and two crotchety old sisters, must contrive ways to stick together and stay alive.
The film is not subtle in laying out its big thematic lesson, but it’s effective in its simplicity. Basically, any time the people on the train find a way to set aside their differences and work together, they manage to stay alive longer; whenever someone decides to do something that’s only in his own best interest, the plan inevitably backfires and a bunch of innocent people get zombified. The film’s main human antagonist is the most self-interested guy on the train, who doesn’t care who gets bitten in his vicinity as long as it’s not him. Most films like this would probably just set this baddie up for a cathartically gruesome kill scene and call it a day, but true to its message of caring about others, Train to Busan is humanistic enough to give even this reprehensible caricature an unexpected moment of vulnerability that makes us reconsider his behavior.
At a full two hours, Train to Busan is a bit overstuffed. The film’s energy starts to sag gently after the hectic first half, which suggests that, while director Yeon never runs out of inventive confrontations and non-confrontations with zombies, maybe one of the flick’s many cool setpieces should have been sacrificed. Of course, some might argue that you can never have too much of a good thing, so feel free to take this (light) criticism with a grain of salt. Genre film fans (who don’t mind subtitles) should have a hell of a good time.
Train to Busan is currently playing in select theaters.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.