Review by C.J. Bunce
The zombie genre is hit and miss. At the movies it’s a comedy that takes the top spot: Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. But the best series goes to Kim Seong-hun’s South Korean Netflix series Kingdom. Part of its appeal is the novelty of setting a zombie apocalypse in medieval Korea and explaining the plague using contemporary medicine. So it should be no surprise the best zombie movie since Shaun of the Dead is also from South Korea. That’s director Yeon Sang-ho’s international hit Train to Busan. It’s a great pick for Halloween horror movie watching and it may also add a new entry into your checklist of great train action movies. It’s streaming now on Peacock.
When you’re engaged in a speeding train story, with either a ticking clock thriller like Bullet Train, Source Code, or The Commuter, or an actual runaway train like in Unstoppable or the best train movie of them all, Silver Streak, the only thing that matters, and what viewers will be watching for, is who makes it off the train alive. As the zombies–created from an epidemic caused by the lead character’s company–randomly infect the lead characters we get to know, get ready for some satisfying decisions on the part of writer Park Joo-suk.
Seok-woo, played by Gong Yoo, is a fund manager, one of those office workers that would normally go unnoticed every day, month, or year in his life in South Korea. He’s divorced but has custody of his daughter Su-an (played by Kim Su-an), who desperately wants her father to take her to her mother in not-so-far away Busan. As in Shaun of the Dead, audience members paying attention will notice the signs in the background of each scene telegraphing the disaster that is brewing.
More than your typical zombie movie, the set-up is like Airport, Earthquake, or Irwin Allen’s Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, as you–the viewer–encounter the current passengers and train staff. You get a chance to know these people before a sick woman meanders aboard. Will the man and woman dressed like flight attendants be heroes, survivors, or zombie fodder?
Train to Busan sheds some light on cultural differences for the Western viewer, but the film doesn’t try too hard to make any statements about class or class struggles like Snowpiercer–and that’s a good thing for this movie. What it does say–and it says it loudly–is that pretty much all people will behave like rats on a sinking ship when a disaster strikes. The director and writers aren’t asking questions or making judgment calls here. Seok-woo, the distracted father, is not so distracted that he knows his priority is saving his daughter, whether or not he has any actual interest in her as a person. The dialogue for Su-an would be better written for an older actress–for the most part she is the young damsel in distress, but early on she seems to know what she wants and what is going on around her.
The writer chose to group the characters in twos. Yoon Sang-hwa (played by martial artist and American actor Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee) is a burly “man’s man” accompanying his pregnant wife, Seong Kyeong (played by Jung Yu-mi). Min Yong-guk (played by Choi W00-shik) is part of a team of high school baseball players, accompanied by his girlfriend Kim Jin-hee (played by Sohee). Park Myung-sin and Ye Soo-jung are elderly sisters traveling together. Jeong Seok-yong plays the engineer driving the train, and Kim Eui-sung is the requisite corporate madman who thinks he runs the world. Viewers will get to know them all.
Train to Busan finds its place among the genre of action movies set on a train, including The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Lady Vanishes, Von Ryan’s Express, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Trading Places, Source Code, Unstoppable, Snowpiercer, The Commuter, and the best of them all, Silver Streak.
Negatives are few, but may distract certain viewers. Stick with the subtitled version over the dubbed version if possible, but even the subtitles include lots of clunky dialogue (someone please hire me to tweak all these movie subtitles, please). And the dialogue leans toward the melodrama at times when a good cut in the editing room would have sufficed. But what isn’t in the negative category are the special effects. Both the makeup and the physical performances are some of the best you’ll find in any zombie work. The rules of the zombies in this movie are seen but not explained, and it’s individual zombie actors that sell the show.
Not giving away any spoilers, but Don Lee is the actor to watch in this movie. He combines the Everyman bystander with one of those powerful heroes Toshirô Mifune would have played back in the 1950s in Japan.
Sneaking quietly in the overhead storage as zombies shamble below. A train car full of zombies hangs in the balance overhead about to crush the survivors below. A detour into a station filled with soldier zombies. Zombies fall to the ground from a helicopter above, only to stand up and start chomping on people. Better than Bullet Train and World War Z, Train to Busan arrived in theaters in 2016, and it is now streaming on Peacock. A great cast, good cinematography, and in-your-face action. Good viewing as we move toward Halloween. Don’t miss it!