Train to Busan centers on workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Yoo Gong), who is reluctantly accompanying his daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) on her birthday to see her mother, with whom he is separated. As the title suggests, they board a high-speed train to the city of Busan. This trip, as it turns out, happens on the morning of a viral zombie outbreak. Unfortunately for the passengers, an infected young woman manages to sneak on the train. Seok-woo and the rest of the passengers are soon dealing with an outbreak on the train.
Train to Busan is a distinctly Korean take on the zombie movie. It applies a layer of what feels like specific Korean neurosis on the movie monsters. This isn’t just a story of people trying to fight off the walking dead. It turns the zombies into walking manifestations of the fears of the modern Korean; of the general worry that society as a whole has grown callous, and that those in power don’t really care about the plight of the common man. In this way, the movie is a true spiritual successor to the earliest zombie films, which always had something more on their minds than just trying to scare people.
The film is pretty broad in a way that’s almost comedic. The first act, which mainly establishes the strained relationship between Seok-woo and his daughter, goes a bit overboard in depicting the distance between the two. And a lack of subtlety carries on through the picture, the film making no attempt to obscure the emotional and thematic elements that it wants to convey. It gets a little grating at times, but the overt tone actually matches up well with the mad action that follows.
The film gets clever in its mechanics. It sets rules and limitations for its central threat. The zombies may greatly outnumber the heroes, and their numbers might keep growing, but the film gives them weaknesses that the heroes are able to exploit in some of the film’s most thrilling scenes. The middle section of the film, which has the heroes having to travel through one zombie-infested train after another, is terribly fun. The film takes full advantage of its train setting, and manages to elegantly craft some genuinely thrilling cinema.
Broadness wins out in the end, especially as the film heads into a bombastic third act. The film pretty much abandons the tight tension of the confined setting in favor of VFX-reliant blockbuster excess. But even so, the film never quite loses its human connection. The acting is generally strong enough to keep the emotions on the forefront, even when the film lapses into hysterics. Yoo Gong is a pretty strong leading man, and he’s able to make his character’s rather extreme personal journey feels somewhat relatable.
Train to Busan is able to defy its excess in the fringes, where it really filters the absurd story elements through a very specific Korean lens. It isn’t so hard to draw a line between the concerns of the characters in the film to recent events in Korea, particularly in its depiction of the government response to the outbreak. And this really gives the film a context that makes it rise above typical zombie cinema. It is, like the best examples of the genre, an artistic expression of a people’s fears. And it accomplishes this while being thoroughly entertaining. That’s a pretty amazing thing.
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