This South Korean smash hit zombie flick has caused quite a stir both domestically and on the festival circuit, for despite being laid on a bit thick, Train to Busan provides a solidly enjoyable, well-acted entry into an admittedly well-oversatured genre.
Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) boards South Korea’s fast-rail service with his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an), taking a train from Seoul to Busan so Su-an can visit her estranged mother for her birthday. However, shortly after departing, it becomes apparent that a zombie virus has found its way onboard the train, and Seok-woo will need to team up with any willing survivors to make it all the way to Busan.
To his credit, director Yeon Sang-ho (The King of Pigs) has seemingly consciously attempted to serve up a more grounded zombie film than is the norm, so often rooted in comedy and irony as they are these days. From the believable reactions of the train’s citizens once the plague breaks out in their carriage – they’re merely confused rather than instantly fleeing in terror – to the protagonist’s plausible resourcesfulness and Sang-ho’s realistic approach to violence, the world feels distinctly our own, though still fields out occasionally heightened stylistic flourishes reminiscent of Sam Raimi.
There may sadly not be much in the way of inventive gore due to the film’s fair level of realism, though the humanist elements are more the focus here, namely Seok-woo’s hilariously inept relationship with his matter-of-fact daughter, which combined with the absurdity of the scenario and the inherent selfishness that would take precedent in such a scenario, laces the apocalypse with a wealth of dark humour.
The action, which takes a major uptick later on, is exciting and taut, though frequently ropey CGI does hamper the giant zombie swarms and more ambitious set-pieces. Still, for a production costing only around $10 million, it’s hard to complain too much.
If the pic truly falls down anywhere, it’s with the culmination of its various themes and emotions in act three; the central moral lesson is incredibly basic, and as such you’ll know long ahead of time who will live, who will die, who will sacrifice themselves in an act of redemption, and who will selfishly look out for their own hide. There’s some incredibly un-subtle class warfare nonsense going on here, and while Snowpiercer made it seem less ham-fisted by making it a literal element of the plot, here it feels more tacked on and unnecessary. There’s also an intrusively melodramatic score to contend with, and its sentimental strokes sometimes play more as goofy than affecting.
Though its shortcomings prevent it from being a true genre classic or living up to the overzealous festival hype, Train to Busan should entertain fans of the zombie genre with its inventive set-up, refreshingly straight-faced approach to its scenario and lashings of gallows humour.
Train to Busan is in cinemas now