According to the old Duke Ellington jazz standard, the A-Train goes to Harlem. Well, now we know where the Z-Train goes. Train to Busan (부산행) is an accomplished South Korean zombie flick with plenty of drama, decent effects, and a set of characters interesting enough to keep you in your seat until the end of the line.
Seok-woo is a divorced fund manager whose cool head for business has led to frosty relations with his daughter, Su-an, who demands to visit her mom in Busan because daddy pays her no attention. Sensing a final opportunity to mend this relationship, Seok-woo boards the train to Busan with Su-an and an ensemble of characters who will soon be fighting together for their lives — including a high-school baseball team (I wonder if those bats will come in handy), loveable tough guy Sang-hwa (played by Ma Dong-seok in a stand-out turn) and his pregnant wife (aww!), and a gaggle of heartless businessmen in first class (boo!). As things happen, the zombie apocalypse strikes just as the train chugs out of the Seoul station and, well, you can guess where things go from there.
Beyond vague references to “the infection,” Busan wastes mercifully little time explaining the zombies — director Yeon Sang-ho knows we’re only here for the ride, and focuses on the characters’ struggles against each other and the hordes of undead. These zombies are the super-aggressive variety, moving like rabid animals, albeit slightly more manageable than the hyper-Zeds of World War Z. The bite-to-turn delay is minimal, which makes for some tense moments as the living start to get nibbled. The effects are great throughout, with some solid CGI set pieces and plenty of wince-inducing slapstick, although cheesy speeded-up camera footage is a bit overused and — to my tastes — the film could have used a tad more variety in its gore (just blood smeared everywhere).
While I thoroughly enjoyed Train to Busan, it adds nothing original to an already-overcrowded genre. Thematically, this is a straightforward redemption narrative with notes of social conflict and sacrifice. The script is just functional, with enough one-liners to offset the tension and some serviceable character development. But compared with Snowpiercer — an imaginative apocalyptic movie that also takes place on a train, and makes full use of every moving part of that vehicle to maim and dispatch baddies — Busan squanders the dramatic potential of the setting somewhat, playing things a bit too straight to offer any truly memorable scenes of zombie-smushing or derring-do.
It might not win any awards for originality, but the acting, story, and action are highly competent. If you’re looking for a reliable action spectacle with some compelling moments of human drama, Train to Busan is just the ticket.
Dan’s rating: (7 / 10)
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writer: Sang-ho Yeon (screenplay)
Starring: Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jung, Ma Dong-seok, Sohee
Release Date: 22 July 2016
Runtime: 1h 58m
MPAA Rating: Unrated (I’d give it an R)