Gong Yoo, Kim Su-an, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Eui-sung, Choi Woo-sik, An So-hee
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…a view of flesh-eating Armageddon from the first class windows of a speeding train…
Businessman Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is taking his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an) to visit his estranged wife in the Korean city of Busan. On their bullet train from Seoul are the usual mix of characters: a man and his heavily pregnant wife, a couple of elderly sisters, a high school baseball team, a selfish executive, even a homeless guy, who is the only one with an inkling of what’s about to hit them…
Yes, Train to Busan is South Korea’s entry into the seemingly undying zombie apocalypse genre, offering a view of flesh-eating Armageddon from the first class windows of a speeding train, and if that sounds like your shot of soju, you may as well buy your ticket now. This is a fast, efficient, meticulously crafted machine of a film, high on tension yet oddly (for this subgenre, at any rate) low on gore that uses its chosen parameters to maximum effect.
The zombies on offer are the fast-moving, hyper-aggressive type – think 28 Days Later – with the added characteristic of being really, really unconcerned with damage to their own bodies. These might be the most aggressive ghouls ever seen on screen, storming after their victims like angry marionettes, snapping and growling like rabid dogs. Busan’s dead antagonists are sight-based, lunging after only those potential meals that they can see, and the film uses this conceit to good effect – at one point a character simply wets newspapers and covers a window to ward them off; at another, timing the train’s passage through tunnels becomes an important tactical consideration.
Director Yeon Sang-ho has a background in animation, which has clearly taught him the value of brevity and economy; there’s not a wasted shot in the film, with every single frame feeling perfectly considered. He uses the confines of his film exceedingly well, letting his characters, and by extension, us, divine what’s going on in the outside world only through snatches of info gleaned from smartphones and the odd desolated train station. Train to Busan doesn’t feel like the kind of movie that came together in the editing suite, but one that flowed from a master plan that was in place from the first day of shooting.
That doesn’t make it a sterile experience, though; the film moves like, well, a bullet train, packing action setpiece after action setpiece into its running time, pausing for breath only to disseminate crucial info or set up the next obstacle for the characters. What it really fells like is an old Irwin Allen disaster movie, ala The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, with a bunch of cool characters stuck in a horrible situation and getting winnowed down one by one in various imaginative ways. Whoever the modern equivalent of Shelley Winters and Steve McQueen are should star in the inevitable American remake.
But don’t wait for that – run to this one when it flits across Australian scenes. Train to Busan doesn’t necessarily bring anything too original to the zombie subgenre, but it remixes and recontextualises existing elements in a fun, frenetic way that’ll leave genre fans smiling when it pulls into its last stop.