Zombie films have been a staple of the horror genre for decades. They have an enduring popularity that is prevalent across the world. As a reflection of this, we have what is perhaps the best zombie film of the year coming from South Korea. Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan is an exciting take on the genre that places the story in an interesting setting. While it does use many of the rules we’ve seen plenty of times before, the film presents them in a way we haven’t seen before.
Seok-woo is a workaholic father who is more concerned with his career than spending time with his young daughter Soo-an. His choices have led to the demise of his marriage, sharing joint custody with his child. When he erroneously gives her a gift on her birthday that she already has, she tells him she wants to go visit her mother. He agrees to take her, using the train from Soeul to Busan. That morning, as they are getting ready to leave, news reports begin to surface of people exhibiting odd behaviour and riots breaking out. Just as the train is about to depart, a girl showing signs of a seizure makes it on to the train. She is infected with a zombie virus. Thus begins a battle for survival against the zombie outbreak while being trapped on a moving train. The circumstances continue to escalate as the cities and stops they are traveling through are continuing to fall. When he gets word that Busan has been secured by the military, Seok-woo is determined to get his daughter to safety.
The zombie makeup and choreography are definitely some of the strongest elements of the film. The director’s background in animation informs on the way he directs the actors who have been infected. They become frightening, and at times twisted, creatures. The director chose to make his zombies the types that are fast so it allows him to be creative in how he frames and executes a scene.
The film also contains several action scenes aboard the train that are reminiscent of another great South Korean action film called Snowpiercer. The characters are creative and practical in their fight to survive and reunite with the family members they’ve been separated from. They are the kind of moments that make you want to cheer for the violent deaths of the zombies.
The story does fall into the expected plot points (one-by-one the human characters are eliminated, leaving the saviour) but it’s still a really strong execution. At least it was until the third act resolution began. The story became needlessly lazy and increasingly absurd. It detracts from the momentum created earlier. Characters succumb to unnecessary stupid mistakes written that way just as an effort to continue escalating, and moments of sentimentality are attempted but do not succeed. Trying to force an emotional connection with the human sacrifices just ends coming across as manipulative and silly. It ends with an intended noble act but could have been done in a much more satisfying way.
However, even with its downfalls, it’s still probably the strongest entry in the genre this year. If you like blood, action, and awesome kills, this is worthy of your time. There is a reason it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and broke records in its home country.