It gives me no pleasure to say this but it has become an undeniable fact – zombies have gotten boring. The flesh-eating hordes of the undead are such a ubiquitous part of the pop culture landscape that the rules that govern them are clichéd and each blood-spurting bite seems more and more diluted. It certainly doesn’t help matters that nobody even seems to be attempting to use the walking dead as a form of political allegory, just mindless and dull flesh eaters. That being said, if a zombie movie is well-made with enough visceral excitement it might be able to at least entertain while not breaking any new ground. That’s the case with Train to Busan, the new Korean zombie film from writer-director Yeon Sang-ho. It’s not a genre masterpiece nor does it revitalized the decaying flesh of the undead, but provides plenty of bloody thrills over two hours that it works as simple, albeit fairly unimaginative, entertainment.
Before the zombie outbreak can get underway, Train to Busan has to introduce us in fairly good detail about the film’s main character Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), an investment executive facing turmoil in his personal and professional life. His young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) is tired her father putting work first and ask that her dad take her to visit her mother for her birthday. Feeling the obligation, Seok-woo relents and the two take a late night train towards Su-an’s mother and Seok-woo’s ex-wife. As happens in zombie movies, a stranger with strange wounds sneaks aboard the train as it leaves the station and it doesn’t take long for the shit to hit the fan as the wounded stranger turns into a zombie and unleashes an epidemic of undead cannibals on the high-speed train. People scramble and fight for survival as the train continues along its route. With information hard to come by, the conductor and its passengers must keep barreling on in hopes that Busan is as secure as believed. If not, it could spell the death for everyone involved.
Part of the weaker elements of Train to Busan is the film’s prolonged set up, which is rather rote in presentation – some people are acting funny, firetrucks and police cars speed to emergencies. We’ve all seen this unfold countless times before and we know what’s coming, so it’s frustrating that Yeon Sang-ho seems determined to drive home the obvious in the film’s inaugural half hour. Once the film follows through on the promise of its foreshadowing, Train to Busan starts barreling forward at an accelerated rate. Yeon Sang-ho shows a knack for some incredible visceral action with zombies that alternate between the dumb and slow undead of Romero and the full-throttled athletic zombies of the Dawn of the Dead remake.
As the film progresses, Sang-ho creates interesting character dynamics amidst the deadly chaos. The loyal and brave Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) protects his pregnant wife Sung-kyung (Jung Yu-mi). Tension arises between Sang-hwa and Seok-woo due to Seok-woo’s selfishness in moments of crisis. It creates a dynamic where Seok-woo has to earn his heroism as nothing goes according to plan. However, for all the moments between characters that work for the film’s betterment, cartoonish villainous characters like cruel selfishness of Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung), a businessman with an interest in protecting himself only, undermine the more genuine and earned moments of the film.
Train to Busan never does anything new with its premise, but its effective moments make up for the lack of inventiveness. Yeon Sang-ho proves himself to be a sharp visual filmmaker, though he’s undermined by his own cliché-riddled script. For fans of zombie movies, there are enough moments that work to make Train to Busan a pretty good time with some flesh-eating Korean. Overpopulation may have diluted the effects of zombies, but as long as filmmakers with the prowess of Sang-ho can make entertaining movies, zombies don’t have to be so damn boring.
Train to Busan is now playing in select theaters. For a full list of theaters go to Well Go Now USA’s website here.
Train to Busan
Though not always the most imaginative piece zombie fare, Train to Busan overcomes its weaker moments with some stunning visceral action.