PLOT: In order to reconnect with his family, a self-centered business man must escort his daughter on a train from Seoul to Busan, Korea in order to see her mother. One problem: a rabid zombie scourge has gorily overrun the railways.
REVIEW: In the wake of South Korea blessing us with one of the best genre flicks of the year via THE WAILING, here comes known animation filmmaker Sang-ho Yeon to carry the qualitative torch with his live-action feature debut TRAIN TO BUSAN - a sweepingly assaultive zombie-action spectacle that sets itself apart from the pack through its emotionally anchored father-daughter tale. We all know how very easy it is to be a bit sick of zombie flicks in this day and age, and how equally difficult it is to make one that tills new territory or offers something compelling to say. So right from the jump, TRAIN TO BUSAN seemed to face the disadvantages of a stacked deck. Yet, through his carefully constructed screenplay, Yeon has managed to center his viscerally charged triumph of uncouth rabidity upon an emotive nexus that allows us to truly feel concern for its principal characters. It's precisely that delineation that upgrades the film from a merely cool one, to a really good one. Aside from overstaying its welcome by about 15-20 repetitive moments, fans of both manic infected-zombie flicks and claustrophobic train-set horror joints alike, do wise and hop aboard TRAIN TO BUSAN when it barrels through your town on July 22nd!
Sok-woo (Yoo Gong) is an overextended hedge fund bigwig who hardly ever sees his family. This has caused an estranged rift between he and his wife, and a severely frayed relationship with his young daughter Soo-Ahn (Kim Soo-ahn). An exemplary scene that depicts such, pitched and performed beautifully, happens when Sok-woo tries to make up for his absenteeism by purchasing Soo-Ahn a birthday gift. He buys her a Nintendo Wii, a device she already owns. That's how out of touch the father is. He also, much to the heartbroken chagrin of Soo-Ahn, missed her song-recital at school, one she more or less dedicated to her father. Now all Soo-Ahn wants is to be with her mother in Busan, but Sok-woo is even too busy to accompany her on the trip. "I can go alone", the girl proclaims. Finally, Sok-woo gives in, postpones his business schedule and decides to escort Soo-Ahn from Seoul to Busan on the KTX bullet-train. But even then, his me-first outlook on life persists. His ways haven't altered.
Not long after boarding the train, the entire country declares a state of emergency due to what seems to be a rabid outbreak of infectious disease. That is, flesh-famished, skin-rotting, mouth-spuming zombies are beginning to mobilize and metastasize across the land. Certainly a fine enough reason to preach self-preservation, no? Thing is even before the fit hits the shan, Sok-woo scolds Soo-Ahn for kindly giving up her seat for an elderly lady to rest upon. The girl can't understand why his father is so selfish and obdurate towards others. The elderly lady and her friend turn out to be minor characters who share a touching moment between them just before their fates cleave in separate directions. We also meet a pregnant couple, the father of which, perhaps the most likeable if not memorable character, hilariously buts heads with Sok-woo as they fiercely fend-off a ferocious zombie incursion...racing from railcar to railcar...ducking, diving, dodging, dishing out deathblows, doing whatever it takes to remain alive. Yu-mi Jeong plays the pregnant woman, who, along with Soo-Ahn, gets separated from their matriarchs when the train must make a forced stop halfway between Seoul and Busan.
It's here that movie slides from blood-soaked road-trip to near suicidal rescue mission, as Sok-woo, the expecting father and a young baseball national (Woo-sik Choi) band together to seek and save their loved ones. Some make it out, some don't, but a whole lot of bystanders and zombies alike get gorily waylaid in the interim. As an outright zombie action flick, the movie delivers one killer-chaotic set-piece after another. We get intimate one-on-one action on the train, yes, but it's counterbalanced by massive melees and sweeping overheads shots of the various cities in utter brain-splattered ruin. The movie pulses with unbridled frenzy in that regard, lending both big and small scale zombie attacks that not only give the overall piece an electric dynamism, but a well designed scope and stature as well. We see entire cityscapes ablaze in one scene, then get a gnarly sneak-across-the-railcar-undetected sequence in another...each set, staged and shot with a well trained eye. For an independently produced import, this doesn't feel like a cheap movie. The CG and VFX come off credibly, the cinematography richly textured, both of which go a long way in making the action seem more or less believable.
But again, it's all about the underpinned relationship between Sok-woo and his daughter Soo-ahn. By the end of the film, both impart wisdom to one and another, both characters grow and find room to evolve, if not reconnect, even amidst the most harrowing of violent outbursts. Not to spoil the particulars, but the final shot of the movie comes with a trenchant emotional impact you simply don't see in a typical zombie yarn. Or hell, any horror film for that matter. To make a statement about a strained father-daughter dynamic, and to make a redemptive stride toward mending the strain, doing all of it against the backdrop of a widespread viral outbreak, is really quite impressive. The only real issue with the film is its length. At just under two hours of runtime, there's a stretch or two of action that tends to feel a bit overdone, if not repetitive. Had there been a different mode of killing, or a more inventive way of dispatching giant swarms of descending zombies, the extra time would have been more forgivable. As it is, the movie would retain the same impact had it been cut down by 15 minutes or so. But really, if that's the biggest gripe, then there's no reason at all not to catch TRAIN TO BUSAN this weekend and beyond. Overall, it's a hell of a ride!