Zombies are a tired breed. Over the past 10 to 15 years, they’ve become a bit too common in our entertainment consumption. Movies, television and comics have all had their fair share. The Walking Dead is the most successful franchise on t.v. but unless you’re a rabid fan of the series, you can admit that some issues of the comic and episodes of the show are hit or miss. Not to say that this is a bad thing. Zombies still have a place in the world of fiction. It’s just that it feels like there’s no more original or inventive stories to tell within this sub-genre. Then along comes Train to Busan (directed by Sang-ho Yeon). This film shows that one can still tell an exciting zombie tale, but also pack it with a great deal of human drama and character development.
I got the chance to see Train to Busan a couple of months back during its initial limited release. At the time I didn’t know what to expect. “Zombies on a Train” in a Korean movie made by a director known mostly for animation. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting much more than just an intense horror film. What I got instead was my pick for one of the best films of the year. When the opportunity to see this film again at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival came up, it was not a hard decision. I knew I would be there, sitting on the edge of my seat.
Train to Busan focuses on divorced fund manager Seok-woo, who is taking his young daughter, Su-an, to visit her mother in Busan as a birthday present. As they board the train, a strange virus begins to infect the inhabitants of his city and others, causing those who have been infected to die and rise again as zombie savages hell bent on eating the flesh of the living. When one of the infected boards the train, the virus spreads quickly and it’s up to the survivors to stay safe until the train can reach Busan, where the outbreak has been fought off by military. During this long ride, Seok-woo and others must find it in themselves to become protectors and heroes. All the while, Seok-woo must also find a way to repair the damaged relationship with his daughter.
When I say this film is one of the best films of the year, I am not saying it’s one of the best “genre” films of the year. I am saying it’s one of the BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR. Transcending what could easily have been a kill crazy splatter fest on a moving train, Train to Busan packs an emotional wollop of a story about the love between a father and daughter that would be right at home in any family drama. There is a level of heart and reality to the relationship. Su-an (played by Kim Su-an) gives an amazing performance for such a young actor (she turned 10 this year) and the viewer feels every pain and sorrow the little girl feels each step of the way. What’s also impressive is that the saccharine plot device of a little girl teaching her father the importance of caring for and protecting those in need is delivered in a straight forward and sober manner that it strengthens the dynamic and makes Su-an an even more likable and precious character. By the middle of the film, you’re rooting for this parent and child to make it all the way to the end…..as well as some other great supporting characters as well.
The performances in this film sell this movie and make it an extremely special viewing experience. Aside from Kim Su-an and Gong Yoo (who plays Seok-woo), the supporting cast is filled with some stock characters that don’t feel stock at all. Ma Dong-seok plays Sang-hwa, a blunt man trying to protect his pregnant wife (played by Jung Yu-mi). Sang-hwa comes off as a bit of an asshole at first, but within just a few scenes becomes a leader of men and the moral compass of the piece. (And yes, he’s a total bad-ass.) His tough talk and inappropriate jokes are balanced perfectly by his smart and likable wife who’s always there to tell him off when he’s being a dick. Choi Woo-shik plays a baseball player who’s team gets destroyed on the train. He, along with his girlfriend Jin-hee (played by former singer Ahn So-hee) are the only survivors from their crew. Their “puppy love” tale among the slaughter is refreshing and at times, a bit comedic. You meet these characters and can’t help but root for them as they try to stay alive.
But like any good film or show of this nature, the zombies are not the only threat the “heroes” have to deal with. There are those who let their fear get the best of them and seek their own survival over helping others. It’s enjoyable to watch these folks get munched on by zombies throughout the film and drives home a message that “everyone for themselves” is not always the best choice for getting out of a crisis in one piece.
The film has everything for a fan of zombie movies, including some fantastic close quarters fights and action sequences. It also has some amazing character development for each of principle actors. Nobody’s there just to be fodder for the zombies. Everyone has their own character arc that is brought to some form of conclusion. It’s very rare that a horror film is able to pull this off.
If you get the chance to see Train to Busan, I highly recommend it. It’s smartly written, beautifully shot and brought to life with fantastic performances. No schlock here, my friend. Just some amazing drama sprinkled with the right amount of humour, horror and action.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!