Train to Busan (2016): World War Z on Wheels (Review)

Train to Busan still image

Written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon, Train to Busan is the follow up to the auteur’s animated zombie film “Seoul Station” (2016).  Sadly, the animated film is not available on Netflix – like its sequel – but TtB is a high octane mix of “World War Z” on wheels with a bit of “Snakes on a Plane” thrown in. 

(One could even argue that some of the film’s base plot owes a bit to Kramer vs. Kramer…)

The story revolves around businessman Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) who is estranged from his wife and fighting for sole custody of their daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim).  As things appear to be unravelling in his business life, he agrees to take Soo-an to Busan to see her mother. It is the child’s birthday and this is what she wants to do. 

It is clear that Seok-woo is struggling to cope despite the love he feels for his daughter. As they start their journey, zombies suddenly appear in the city, the train station and on the train itself. It becomes apparent that the undead are flooding the entire country.

As Seok-woo works to keep Soo-an safe he gets help from Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) and his heavily pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung).

Sang-ho Yeon has obviously been influenced heavily by the 2013 Brad Pitt zombie apocalypse film.  His zombies favour the Pitt film’s undead in behavior and amped up speed. Yeon has been even more influenced by the  later film than, say,  the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake of the 1978 Romero classic. The earlier film (remake) featured super energized zombies that were, in essence, damned scary. Much more effective than George’s shambling and slow-footed flesh-eaters.

(Although Romero himself dislikes the speedier undead creatures, the new improved models, that can chase their victims down with insane speeds, are terrifying.)

World War Z gave us zombies that were more akin to Army ants with a sort of group mentality and a intense sort of adrenalized activity that made the James Gunn/Zack Snyder (Yes that Zack Snyder.) zombies seem turtle-like in comparison. Train to Busan also uses the WWZ ant-like behavior to good effect and while using some well established tropes, if you will, that have been established in the long running AMC zombie fest “The Walking Dead.” One being the “sound attracting the undead” cliche that has been a feature of the Robert Kirkwood series from the beginning.

There are other nods to film tropes that are present in other genres. The turning away of survivors by a larger group because they “might be infected” has been used before but its presence in this film fits perfectly.

South Korea has been top of the pack for some time with their “Z-Horror” creations. Train to Busan marks their first foray into the zombie film and, like other auteurs in the country, Sang-ho Yeon has managed to make film that is scary, entertaining and fast paced enough to keep us on the edge of our seats.

The performances are solid across the board. Dong-seok Ma, who was brilliant in The Good, The Bad, The Weird as the nearly silent giant hammer wielding villain in that film, is perfect as the muscle bound soon-to-be father with an attitude. The child actress Soo-an Kim, like other young performers from this country, offers up a truth in her role of the daughter and it helps the film along.

Sang-ho Yeon manages to keep the film moving along well, making the most of the claustrophobic feel of the setting. Unlike the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle of “Snakes on a Plane,” with its unintentional collapse into comedy, (“I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHER****ING SNAKES ON THIS MOTHER****ING PLANE!”) Train to Busan manages to keep things on an even keel.

There are a number of familiar South Korean characters to help the audience feel at home. A douche businessman, some young romantically inclined teenagers who happen to be on the train, a couple of sisters who, despite their bickering, really care for one another and of course the pregnant mother struggling to keep her pushy husband in check.

While the main action is around the estranged father and his daughter, a trio soon forms where the expectant father, Soo-an’s dad and one baseball playing teen (Woo-sik Choi) all try to save their respective female counterparts. 

At one hour and 58 minutes the film could have bogged down in the middle but the action and the storyline keep things moving as quickly as the high octane zombies that are flooding South Korea.

Train to Busan is a solid 5 star film that hits every mark spot on. There are no lags, lapses or mistakes in this satisfying action/horror.  The film is streaming on Netflix and is presented in Korean with English subtitles. There is a good bit of violence, not too much blood and no nudity.

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