Here’s a South Korean zombie tale that’s almost in the vein of last year’s touching father-daughter drama Maggie. “Almost”, because while this story will also gnaw at your heart rather than just your gut, Train To Busan has more of World War Z in its DNA.
Close shaves, hand-wringing suspense, zombie “boils” – churning clusters of frenzied infected people – along with near-instantaneous transmission of whatever supervirus is causing all this, driving its victims to infect more and more hosts … this South Korean box-office smash could well inhabit the same universe as that 2013 Brad Pitt hit.
So call it World War K if you will. It also has at its heart some staples of K-drama: distant fathers distracted by corporate concerns, daughters yearning for paternal affections/approval, teenagers with tangled relationships, working class heroes, entitled bigshots.
This collection of random types goes all aboard a fast train from Seoul to Busan one fine morning, just as the signs of a zombie outbreak are starting to show: convoys of emergency response vehicles rushing past the protagonists, fires and muffled explosions in the distance, an eerie quiet over the city.
As the train pulls out of the station, one infected person gets on board and that’s pretty much the start of your apocalypse-in-microcosm right there.
Before you can say Descendants Of The Sun, half the passengers have been turned and the remainder are fighting to survive. High-flying fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his little daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), lovable brute Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok, easily the standout here) and his pregnant wife Sung-gyeong (Jung Yu-mi), teen lovebirds Young-gook (Choi Woo-sik) and Jin-hee (Sohee), and corporate big gun Yong-suk (Kim Ui-seong) soon emerge as the (more or less) principal survivors for us to root for … or jeer.
Yes, jeer. Because, like all good walking/running/commuting dead efforts, Train To Busan reminds us that, aside from the everpresent threat of the infected, it’s regular people who will do anything to survive – anything, including sacrificing their fellow passengers to buy a few extra seconds of safety – that constitute the most insidious, unexpected and heartless threats.
Topped with a generous helping of K-class-struggle concerns – with Yong-suk taking “command” of the sheep in one car (as is his “right”, he is a COO after all) while the other main survivors mentioned above fight for their lives elsewhere on board – Train To Busan also has strong elements of social commentary approaching the level of the better George Romero Dead flicks.
But that’s all icing on the cake. You’re really here for the carnage, right? And on that score, Train To Busan delivers in spades.
Director Yeon Sang-ho, who has also made a “companion piece” to this, the animated feature Seoul Station (which takes place one day before the events here), makes full use of the cramped confines of train coaches to evoke maximum thrills and suspense. And we do mean “full use”, as you might also agree after watching the survivors make one harrowing, sphincter-clenching crawl to safety.
The claustrophobic interiors are so effectively utilised, and the effect so immersive, that when the action periodically shifts to the wider spaces of train yards or stations, you are as disoriented/dazed as the poor characters themselves.
Things don’t always come up roses, though. Some of the extras seem to be hopped up on coffee or sugar, making their zombied-out “performances” frequently too hyper and more laughable than terrifying. Guess it’s all part of the theatrics.
Still, it’s the principal cast, notably Gong and Ma, as well as sweet little Soo-ahn, who compensate for and outshine the OTT undead as they make one heart-rending sacrifice after another for loved ones and for folks they hardly know – and even get some wisecracks in as well. Viewers would do well to treat them all like strangers on a train, however – just don’t get too attached to anyone.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Saving its most powerful emotional moments till pretty late into the film, Train To Busan devotes a few moments to explore the question of what goes through an infected person’s mind before he or she turns completely.
More than any of the violence and disaster sequences, it’s these bits that will sock you in the gut and leave you choking back tears. Indeed, it is World War K … for Kleenex.
Train To Busan
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Soo-ahn, Jung Yu-mi, Sohee, Kim Ui-seong, Choi Woo-sik