Studio: Well Go USA
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writer: Sang-ho Yeon
Producer: Dong-ha Lee
Stars: Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, So-hee Ahn, Eui-sung Kim
Uninfected survivors struggle to stay alive aboard a moving train as a zombie outbreak spreads across Korea.
Sample a handful of reviews for “Train to Busan” and you might think it a legal requirement for critics to describe the movie as “Snowpiercer” meets fast-zombie-film-of-choice. That latter blank has been filled with everything from “28 Days Later” to “World War Z” (review here) to Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead.” It’s only natural for “Snowpiercer” to spring to mind when it comes to train-set action from a Korean filmmaker and one of those other three movies for sprinting zombies. None of those “it’s like” analogies are incorrect. Just to be different, I’ll summarize “Train to Busan” by saying it’s like “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” meets “Left 4 Dead.”
VERY MINOR SPOILERS
“It’s like” analogies are also appropriate because “Train to Busan” borrows beats from practically every undead epic you can think of, particularly those on George A. Romero’s résumé. A mid-movie confrontation between two men over a door is a mirror of Ben and Harry’s faceoff from “Night of the Living Dead.” What one elderly woman does out of despondence is straight up ripped from Miguel’s last action in “Day of the Dead.”
But “Train to Busan” blends the best bits of these influences so well and with such an intriguing coat of fresh paint that even when you notice the cribs, you don’t care. The experience is so loaded with emotion and exhilaration that what matters most is how memorably thrilling “Train to Busan” is as a top-notch zombie action adventure.
Seok-woo is your typical distracted divorced dad, caught up in the constant buy/sell bluster of investment banking and thinking only about himself. He doesn’t even notice when he buys the same gift as last time for his neglected daughter Soo-an, whose only wish for her father is that he might finally keep a promise to show up for a school recital.
Seok-woo will have an opportunity for redemption, by proving how much he cares for his daughter, when a birthday trip to visit mom in Busan derails unexpectedly. Boarding a KTX train with an eclectic assortment of passengers including an even more arrogant businessman, a middle class husband and his pregnant wife, a high school baseball team, and a disheveled derelict, father and daughter are on an express track toward terrible terror.
At the same time the train takes off, an outbreak starts spreading swiftly across Korea. Those infected turn almost instantly into cataract-eyed creatures snapping jaws at any human with a pulse. One woman with the bug is on this train. Panic ensues when the infection suddenly spreads like wildfire, separating survivors from savages while blurring the line between the two. Seok-woo will have to change his selfish ways if he and Soo-an are to make it to Busan alive. Though the confines of the train cars with their cannibalistic contents are far from the only threat they will face.
The premise may as well stand with its full weight on your nose for all of the subtlety put into clichéd characterizations. All of these people have been seen before under other names in other movies, though the Devil’s Advocate could argue that at least “Train to Busan” has personal subplots for each person’s arc. Ultimately, the value these personalities bring is relatable empathy easily overshadowing unoriginality.
The horror in “Train to Busan” is hauntingly human. Stunned expressions watch helplessly as windows pass by charred carnage outside. Panicked phone calls from loved ones force these men and women to fight fear on fronts that don’t involve literal monsters. And underwriting the emotion in these events are nearly nonstop sequences of out-of-this-world contortionist choreography.
Setups for suspense are stereotypical for a thriller. This doesn’t mean your teeth won’t touch your nails, but two hours is a long time to spend with countless close calls and narrow nick of time escapes based on outstretched hands inching toward a goal. Writer/director Sang-ho Yeon keeps action energetic, though whenever the human drama settles down, “Train to Busan” can be a Point A to Point B run of repetition. Subtracting one or two setpieces to minimize the Murphy’s Law of how every conceivable train and zombie-related nightmare can and does befall the survivors might put more plausibility into the pandemonium.
Yet when eyes widen and jaws drop faster than the brain can get bored or come to a full stop with a “wait a minute,” “Train to Busan” blows away the bar for undead action entertainment. With a surprisingly sad tearjerker of a climax, Soo-an Kim’s last few scenes as Seok-woo’s young daughter are absolute crushers, the movie emerges as a satisfying stunner that hits hard in the heart, not just in the head.
NOTE: While both films function independently of each other despite one being billed as a prequel, fans of “Train to Busan” are encouraged to also see “Seoul Station” (review here), director Sang-ho Yeon’s animated companion film. They don’t share any characters in common, though they are set against the same apocalyptic backdrop and feature similar themes.
Review Score: 80