Between all the movies, television shows and video games, I felt that the zombie genre was fully saturated and so I had no real interest in this film when it first came out. By the time I became aware of its hugely positive word of mouth reviews and tried to watch it, it had already fallen out of rotation at the cinemas. So here I am watching a popular movie months after its release.
Saek-woo is a fund manager in Seoul who is estranged from his wife in Busan but has his daughter Soo-an living with him. On her birthday, Soo-an insists on going to Busan to see her mother after being neglected by Saek-woo. He reluctantly takes her despite clearing preferring to focus on his work. In the background however all this not while as emergency vehicles rush to and fro and there is news of riots. The zombie outbreak hits them when a bitten woman rushes into the train at the last minute. The chain of infections quickly scares everyone into fleeing towards the front of the train as it continues on its journey. The other survivors includes burly man and his pregnant wife, a high-school baseball team, a pair of elderly sisters and a predictably evil rich corporate executive. Together they fight off zombies not only on the train but in the train stations as they search for a safe sanctuary.
As you can see, this is pretty standard zombie movie fare, predictable down to exactly who will survive until the end. Yet it’s excellent largely due to its near perfect execution. Director Yeon Sang-ho properly understands that the true strength of a good zombie movie lies in the dynamics of its group of survivors. Here the usual cast of characters may fit the familiar stereotypes down to a T, but the fact that they’re Korean plus the richness of the interactions makes all of the difference. Like everyone else, it was satisfying if a bit on the nose to watch the carriage full of suspicious passengers get their comeuppance so immediately. Add to that decent action, the novelty of the train setting and some spectacular set-pieces and you have a winning combination. Seeing a literal train of zombies isn’t a sight you’re likely to forget anytime soon.
The rationalist in me feels obliged to point out the inefficiencies of the zombie-fighting measures here. Sure, they’re smart enough to jury-rig some light armor to cover their arms but they seem pretty lazy about scrounging for improvised weapons. Punching zombies in the face doesn’t seem like a smart strategy to me. And why do they act like being confined in quarantine is some kind of awful fate? It seems like a reasonable security precaution to me! The most ridiculous bit is when the passengers of a carriage are unhappy about the presence of the newcomers and force them to move towards the vestibule, which turns out to be nearer the front of the train and therefore farther away from the zombies. I don’t know about you but I’d want to put as many doors between me and the zombies as possible.
Overall Train to Busan is a straightforward but well-made zombie film. One thing to note that it seems markedly less dark than current generation American zombie stories. These are now all filled with angst, depression, suicides and how living amidst a zombie apocalypse break people on a fundamental level. Though there are plenty of deaths in this one, the horror is toned way down and it even ends on a somewhat hopeful note! That’s why this film sometimes feels like an endearingly traditional take on the genre. It’s not very ambitious and sometimes pure zombie action is all you need.