New zombies, new rules. If TRAIN TO BUSAN did nothing but find a new take on zombies, it would be worth your time, but this Korean gem goes the extra yardage to gift us with an engrossing story that contains only a soupçon of well-regulated sappy sentiment. It’s far more interested in observing what happens when society breaks down, and a fine job it does of that. In this case, when a biotech leak unleashes a plague of zombies, and a plucky cross-section of humanity finds itself racing across the Korean countryside on a hi-speed train that is threatened from within and without by not only the ci-mentioned monsters, but also by the failings of human nature.
We know something’s up when a deer killed in a hit and run by a dyspeptic hog farmer springs back to undead life in the silence of a country road. There is something in its blank white eyes and its unnaturally belligerent stance that does not bode well. Though we never find out, one wonders if the hog farmer will make it home.
Elsewhere we meet Seok Woo (Yoo Gong), a funds manager facing several crises both personal and professional. His trades are being called into question, his ex-wife is counter-suing him for custody of their adorable pre-teen daughter, Soo-an (Soo-an Kim), and he has blown Su-an’s birthday resulting in a reproach that convinces him to return her to mother in Busan. And to take her himself.
Good choice, as the train is leaving Seoul, a cutie-pie with a pixie-haircut leaps aboard twitching violently and muttering apologies, and a bearded oddball who may or may not have bathed recently cowers in the men’s room muttering that they are all dead. Couple that with the odd way a body falls on the platform just outside Su-an’s window and the stage is set for the life-and-death-and-undeath struggle to come.
When the zombies strike, they are not the standard shuffling piles of rotting flesh. No, these zombies are fresh(ish), and they sprint with alarming alacrity when on the trail of a meal. Part of the excitement is figuring out these new rules along with the passengers, who include a high-school baseball player and the cheerleader with an aggressive crush on him, a pair of elderly sisters who long for the good old days of order, the short-tempered, heavily pregnant woman with the husband twice her size who fears nothing except her, and the COO (a delightfully slimy Dong-seok Ma) whose complete lack of morals is topped only by his constant need for the facilities. On the train, off the train, the survivor’s numbers thin as the zombies pursue them with such ferocity that they climb over one another in their wild abandon to begin noshing, #zombies is trending on social media, the news on the train’s television monitors report the fall of major cities, and the train’s engineer is desperately trying to find a place that hasn’t been overrun.
Remarkably, none of these characters are the clichés that all too often populate horror flicks. The doughty little girl who looks at her father sadly when he explains that they must look out only for themselves now has a palpable sense of ethics and a maturity that combines pity with that sadness. The pregnant woman is tough, but not hardened, and her husband, the comic relief of the piece, is not only direct in his approach to social interactions, he’s got an innate genius for taking out the zombies in one-on-one combat. The elderly ladies are sweet with more than a welcome pinch of ginger, and that COO manages to mix a dash of puerile insecurity into the pure evil of using his fellow passengers as human shields. These become characters that provoke in us an emotional investment, for good or ill, that ups the suspense with terrific performances, a fast-moving script and spot-on direction by Sang-ho Yeon. There is a stupendous climax to the action. And then there’s another. Before that, though, there is true love, naked perfidy, and a series of hair-raising close-calls, clever escapes, and the gruesome results of making the wrong split second decision. Most noteworthy Yoo Gong, who makes his character’s emotional journey as fraught with peril and remorse as the physical one he is taking. He is much more than just a pretty face.
TRAIN TO BUSAN is a cracking good time at the movies. Inventive, even daring, and barely a predictable moment in its 118 minutes.