Like zombies? Check. Like action flicks? Check. Like Gong Yoo? Check check check. You must now watch Train to Busan. Now. This is the real summer disaster/action flick that you need to see before autumn rolls around. For once, I’m not going to spoil anything about this film because I want you to watch it.
Train to Busan is a zombie flick. And it’s a good one. We start very quickly with news of a small leak in a biochemical research facility, and the government has taken swift action to start decontaminating cars and people as they cross highways and borders of cities. It’s all very fine and dandy… until you realize that this leak is no normal one. With a single bite mark, it turns normal people into the infected undead. They’re not normal zombies with rotting corpses either. Just one bite and within minutes the victims’ eyes turn white. They move jerkily and quickly, as if their bones don’t exist, and they attack quickly – choosing to bite more people and keep moving rather than spend the time to eat one person completely.
We follow Seok Woo (Gong Yoo, who is fantastic as always), a ruthless fund manager who has a hard time raising his daughter Soo Ahn (Kim Soo Ahn) after he and his wife separate. Right now Seok Woo has custody, but Soo Ahn wants to go to her mother in Busan because he isn’t a present father. She doesn’t even find comfort in her loving grandmother because, well, it’s just not the same. So Seok Woo decides to bring his daughter to Busan on her birthday, as it is her wish. But almost immediately after leaving Seoul Station, trouble hits. An infected person (Shim Eun Kyung, in a surprising cameo) boards the train and is basically patient zero. All hell breaks loose as the train slowly becomes full of infected people, and the survivors are doing their best to reach Busan because it’s the only city where the military was able to garrison the city and drive out the infected.
Gong Yoo is absolutely brilliant in this role as a father, as he fits perfectly into the role of a father who doesn’t know how to be a father. Jung Yoo Mi (I Need Romance 2012, Discovery of Romance) was a delight as the whip-smart, very pregnant wife of Ma Dong Seok, who is a beast. And by “beast” I mean, he really nailed it in this role; he was someone you couldn’t help but root for to the very end. Both of them have a wonderful connection to each other and to Soo Ahn, something that Seok Woo fails at. I did not expect Choi Woo Shik to be in this movie, playing a high school baseball athlete, nor Wonder Girls’ Ahn So Hee as his classmate. Both are resourceful characters, but the movie never fails to forget that they’re also high schoolers. They aren’t the whiny types, but they still desperately rely on others and each other to survive. One of my favorite actors Jung Suk Yong appears as the conductor of the train too, and even with his smaller sized role, you can see the heroism ooze out of his small stature. What was great was that not only was the film well-acted, but the characters were also well written. They were fleshed out just enough so that you could understand their thought process to how to approach the situation. Everyone in this world knows what zombies are and what they can do, so there’s not much of a learning curve in trying to figure out how to deal with the infected. It frees up twenty minutes of the movie to show us something about the characters’ personal lives rather than spending it explaining what zombies can or cannot do.
And that’s the thing I love the most about this film: despite being a disaster flick, it makes you feel very invested in the characters’ well-being. You spend enough time with everyone where you realize how badly you want them to survive the ordeal. You know that no one is safe in this film, and though that’s more frightening, it is also more comforting. I like going into a movie and being surprised. I like not being able to predict the ending, and I like not being able to know who dies first or last. (Though, I was pretty good in predicting who would die second to last.) Without the usual predictable crutches, I was able to stay in the moment with the characters, scream at/for them through the screen, and still understand why they did what they did. I have to give so much credit to director-writer Yeon Sang Ho for finding the right pace for the film and evoking the right emotions at the right time.
On top of that, the effects were great. There were some CGI bits, but I feel that most of the effects were more practical. The frame rate was manipulated to give the zombies a more jerky effect and I have to give kudos to the choreographer because it could not have been easy to move around so fluidly and jerkily as the ghost in Grudge without guidance. Stunts, choreography, and frame rate changes were effective in making the zombies scarier than you’d expect. One didn’t need so much make up and special effects (like The Walking Dead) to make the zombies grotesque and something to be feared.
I cannot tell you how much I cried during this film, and it wasn’t (necessarily) because I was mourning deaths. It was because sometimes the relationships of the living are enough to touch your heart and realize just how close you are to them. We may not encounter zombies any time soon, but we can definitely relate to the feelings of fear, loss, and despair. And sometimes you never realize just how much you love someone until you are close to losing them. The father-daughter relationship that comes out of this film is remarkable and one of the best things about it.
Now, I can look forward to the animated prequel Seoul Station, starring Shim Eun Kyung, Ryu Seung Ryong, and Lee Joon. It explains a bit more about the outbreak and takes place one day before the events of Train to Busan.
Verdict: 10/10 – can this count as a “Z” title in my attempt to watch movies/dramas of every letter of the alphabet?