Sang-ho Yeon’s “Train to Busan” is the kind of genre film that utilizes every tool available to craft something worth watching. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a different story, but it’s the kind of movie that will be in and out of theaters in a flash and gain a small cult following over streaming services. It’s the kind of movie that is built to achieve that following. It's one of the zombie genre’s best, and a zombie film that isn’t necessarily about the living dead.
Remaining in the vein of Danny Boyle and George Romero’s invention, Sang-ho Yeon (“Seoul Station”) and co-writer Joo-Suk Park (“Hwayi: A Monster Boy”) echo their brilliance while turning the narrative on its head, choosing to use zombies as a unifier instead of a separator. We usually see these films as identifiers of the inherent dangers of blindly trusting our fellow man, looking across the street and seeing the good in them, when all they want to do is eat your brains. Sang-ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park maintain that inherent fear but utilize it to become the device that should bring us together, shouting a message of an alliance. Preaching upon the idea of working together to pull each other out of the darkness, looking out for our fellow man instead of inherently defending ourselves from them, and it is those who decide to manipulate the weak to save themselves who will suffer.
A better way of looking at it is to see “Train to Busan” as what “World War Z” should have been, but on this smaller scale, enclosed, and thrilling set piece of a movie, we get that dose of powerful social commentary, along with a helluva bullet ride of a zombie flick that grounds itself around a father and a daughter. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is that father figure, one who's become a slave wage of modern-day South Korea. He’s a fund manager, seen as someone who leeches off the poor to build himself up. He’s someone that is predictably a lousy father that places himself before others. It’s not until his daughter, Soo-an (Kim Su-an), begs to see her mother that we get snippets of the tender heart that resides behind this corporate servant.
The mother lives in Busan, a mere one hour train ride from Seoul. A trip that comes to fruition after an awkward scene in which Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) bought a Nintendo Wii for his daughter, seemingly purchasing something for her birthday that he forgot about. It becomes an embarrassing moment for him when he sees that she already owns a Wii, a gift that he gave her for Children’s Day.
To make up for that snag, he promises to take her to Busan. Planning on returning to work that same day, being the workaholic that he is, he wakes up early and drives to the train station. On the way there, firetrucks and emergency services dash by an intersection to a scene of events that becomes a precursor to an outbreak in which people have turned into flesh-eating animals. One of these unlucky people finds themselves barraging onto the train, unbeknownst to the staff, she convulses and turns.
These zombies don’t stroll and mumble though; they sprint with rage and screech with ferocity. It’s a terrifying scene to watch these people turned monsters unleashed upon the civilians who once believed this to be a horror fantasy, now it's a horrific reality that is threatening their lives. Soon we’re left with a handful of characters trapped between railroad cars, which is where the social commentary speaks with confidence in how some of these passengers will do everything they can to survive, and others will anything possible to save others.
The set-up to this movie is thematically rich, building itself to a multitude of emotionally resonating moments involving a father journeying down the roads of the past to mend bridges and patch up scars that will inevitably reveal the love he has for his daughter. That story lasts for the nearly two-hour runtime, but it's one that gets buried underneath the weight of the commentary at times as if Sang-ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park have crammed far too much into this genre narrative.
It runs its course in a ninety-five-minute spread, but the film limps its way to a two-hour length. It’s a two-fold flaw of the movie in which the film is too long for its own good, but it fails to maintain the rigorousness of the thrills and chills throughout that drawn-out runtime. It’s a blemish stemming from unbalanced quality, but it's also a group of filmmakers trying to fill a runtime that should have been cut down by at least thirty minutes.
The use of that Train environment is something that makes this film so great though, how no one had this idea before Sang-ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park is remarkable in itself, but the claustrophobic tension to be found is exemplified in a rescue mission. After a shortstop in Daejeon that goes awry, our characters are separated by five railroad cars. A pregnant mother, Soo-an (Kim Su-an), and few other characters find themselves trapped in the bathroom between cars, with these infectious freaks cornering them on both sides. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), baseball kid turned hero Yong-Guk (Woo-Sik Choi), and fatherhood badass Sang-Hwa (Dong-Seok Ma) work together to manifest a rescue op.
It’s a thrilling sequence that is filled with action, hide and seek tension, and crafty maneuvering around the cabin when they learn that these creatures are blind and when traveling through the darkness of a tunnel, they rely on what they hear. Their smarts become their best weapon as bronze becomes a backup weapon, one that becomes a signifier of sacrifice, as our characters will save as many people as they can, which inevitably means giving up their lives for others. It’s thematically richer in that way, compared to your average, run of the mill, zombie genre flick.
Though it’s middle parts struggle to maintain the ferocity of the beginning and the heart wrenching triumph of the finale, “Train to Busan” is easily one of the genre’s best in years, maintaining that core atmosphere of Romero and Boyle, while turning the genre on its head as a young Edgar Wright did with “Shaun of the Dead.” There’s a multitude of comparisons to make so that general audiences can find this niche thrill ride as alluring as an American-made, middle-man film. All you need to know is, “Train to Busan” is a zombie film that is sensationally entertaining, one that is sure to excite any fan of the brain-eating genre.