There was my expectation that Train to Busan would be terrifying, with Asian horror films such as Audition (1999) or Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) unapologetically breaking boundaries of the horror genre. Yet, this zombie apocalypse film by Yeon Sang-ho is far more attentive with goriness than being scary. The film’s focus is the endeavour by Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) to bond with his daughter Soon-an (Soo-an Kim) after gaining custody. She clearly adores him as a father but is upset that the fractious relationship with his ex-wife means Soon-an cannot go to see her in Busan for her birthday. Gong Yoo eventually relents, knowing that Soon-an would be persistent enough to go on her own and they board the KTX from Seoul to Busan. As the train sets to depart, the passengers are unaware of a woman who has boarded infected by an unknown virus.
The film quickly explodes into a flurry of action as the infected woman attacks people, who quickly turn. There is hardly a moment to breathe as the infected rush through the tightly packed train, spinning camera angles create claustrophobic confusion as bodies are flung aside to be devoured. The film lacks a story and any plot is to give time to a group of character arcs as opposed to an overarching narrative. As such the characterisation feels fleshed out and we become unconcerned with who or what caused this virus, just the safety of these individuals. The stand out mentions are the heartbreakingly adorable Soon-an and Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), a fearless soon-to-be father. He quickly forms a bond with Soon-an and I felt myself punching the air as he took down each zombie with fighting skills that would put Batman to shame.
It is a wonderfully crafted film and despite being director and writer Sang-ho Yeon’s first venture into the genre, it is evident that he understands what makes a great zombie film. He implements all of the classic tropes, the hesitation when facing those you once knew, the willing sacrifice and being unable to let go of infected loved ones. The quality of the cast and script allow for these moments to seamlessly create thrilling action and a satisfying set of events. The problem is none of it feels fresh, horror or thrillers should be surprising, full of moments that keep you on edge. The film is so meticulously constructed that it is far too predictable, right down to easily guessing which character will next be killed. Whilst the ending did have me tearing up, it was still another well manufactured cliché. It is only redeemed by the performances from Gong Woo and Soo-an Kim.
Despite the ending and some rehashing of overused tropes, Train to Busan is still a highly engaging and entertaining film. There are some darkly funny moments, none of the jokes feel lost from the subtitle translations. The aforementioned quality from the writing and all of the cast ensure this is a zombie film which feels as compact as the train to Busan.
Dir: Sang-ho Yeon
Scr: Sang-ho Yeon
Cast: Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Dong-seok Ma, Yu-mi Jeong, Woo-sik Choi
Prd: Dong-ha Lee
DOP: Hyung-deok Lee
Music: Jang Young-gyu
Run Time: 118 mins
Train to Busan is being screened on limited release during October.