Many years ago (well, back in the early 2000s) somebody came up with a cute idea for a film – Snakes On a Plane. It ws a perfect example of style (or, in this case, a decent concept and a clever title) over substance, because the finished film was somewhat average at best. Not so with Train to Busan though – the concept of which is, put simply, Zombies On a Train. It's a clever idea, and it's a surprise it hasn't been done before, but there is so much more to this film than putting a bunch of people in a confined space and adding a deadly threat.
The past decade or so has seen a real glut of zombie films – and even TV shows such as The Walking Dead and iZombie – with each one trying to outdo the one before and take the apocalypse to the next level. What Train to Busan does so, so well is strip the zombie movie back to basics and concentrate on story, action, drama (and even melodrama), laughs, social satire and a touch of blood and gore. Our main protagonist is divorced fund manager Seok-woo (Yoo Gong), who is usually too busy to be bothered with the demands of being a father to daughter Soo-an's (Soo-a Kim). But when all she wants for her birthday is to visit her mother in Busan, Seok-woo gives in and father and daughter board the high-speed KTX train from Seoul to Busan – along with a single person who has infected with a mysterious virus after a biotech leak. As the train hurtles along between cities, more people become infected (these are "fast" zombies, more in keeping with the creatures of the Dawn of the Dead remake or 28 Day Later than the classic Romero beasts) and the living must find a way to outwit the dead.
South Korean animator Yeon Sang-ho (this is his first live-action effort) has crafted a cleve and exciting thrill ride the like you have not seen before, It cleverly combines the horror and disaster genres and does not set a foot wrong once in its almost two-hour running time. We meet a broad assortment of characters that form a cross-section of Korean society – pregnant Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi) and her tough-yet-doting husband Sang-hwa (Dong-suk Ma), high school baseball player Yong-guk (Woo-sik Choi) and his cheerleader girlfriend Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee), and self-centred executive Yong-suk (Eui-sung Kim), among others. There is just enough exposition and backstory to help you care about the characters, and there are at least a couple of moments guaranteed to have you tearing up.
There are plenty of themes at play here, the strongest being that the most important thing we have is family. There is beautiful camerawork from Hyung-deok Lee and sharp editing from Jin-mo Yang, but this is very much Yeon's baby. It was a massive hit in Korea, so be sure to catch it before the inevitable Hollywood remake that won't be half as good. Train to Busan is an engaging thrill ride that will have you gasping one minute, laughing the next and then crying a few minutes after that. It's one of the best films of the year, and easily one of the best zombie films since Romero's Dawn of the Dead.
EXTRAS: There's the featurette The Making of Train to Busan (17:29); a Sneak Peek of Seoul Station (2:19), which is a feature-length animated prequel to Train to Busan; and the Seoul Station trailer (1:23).