Of all the horror sub-tropes the zombie films has felt played out the longest. For some reason, be it the cinematically uninteresting stumbling around or generally overt proselytizing using the creatures as overt metaphor, it just becomes tiresome.
Yet there are exceptions, of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be rabid fans of this kind of tale. Train to Busan ups the ante, taking elements from the likes of World War Z and Snowpiercer and crafting a thoroughly engaging, intense and satisfying experience.
Despite its relatively luxurious running time of 118 minutes, the film wastes no time getting things rolling. A businessman (Gong Yoo) is involved in profiting from the economic suffering of others, making trades when things go wrong. He’s too busy to be there emotionally for his daughter (Kim Su-an), and she cajoles him into taking her on a quick ride to drop her off with her mom.
As they board chaos is beginning to build outside the station, and as it heads down the tracks they’re trapped in a little cocoon where the moving train becomes a self-contained vehicle for the film’s setting.
Along the way we meet a myriad of characters, with the most sympathetic well played by Ma Dong-seok, a big guy who illustrates how self-sacrifice is preferable to small-minded selfishness. It’s a cauldron of moral choices, a locomotive Lord of the Flies where when shit goes down and one sees the real humanity (or lack thereof) of those confronting chaos.
Director Yeon Sang-ho does a fantastic job at using the environment of the train to feel both claustrophobic and geographically coherent, creating capsules where separate action sequence can play out while the whole continues to plunge forward.
More impressively, the film builds to many disparate climaxes but all seem in fitting with the story – quite literally the locomotive never runs out of steam, here, and as the stakes get higher (and the sacrifices increase) there’s a genuine sense of empathy for these three-dimensional characters. This isn’t just fodder for watching our protagonists cut down, the film manages to make one care as things go wrong (or right), providing emotional beats that truly resonate.
Some may balk at the overt melodrama characteristic of many Korean films. The swelling strings, the moments of quiet, slo-motion reflection are the elements that surely would be excised in any North American rendition of this tale. Yet it’s these moments of admitted saccharine emotionality that contributes to the empathy of the situation, making the bolder, more brutal moments sink in that much harder.
Plus, a real shout out needs to be made for the performance they get out of Su-an. Kids in movies like this are usually cloying and precocious, yet the director here elicits reactions that at times are blood curdling. With a great mix of emotion, from ennui to terror to quiet joy, this young performer anchors her older collaborators, making for quite the journey indeed.
Train to Busan is a tremendous achievement, a genre film that works in beautifully archetypal ways. It takes the elements of genre filmmaking to tell a story of interconnected characters, the way that the best of these films do. Far more than just a series of slaughterings, the film transports its audience through an emotional voyage that provides some deadly fun with emotionally charged drama.
This review was originally published as part of our Fantasia 2016 coverage.