Film review: Train to Busan

A hugely enjoyable zombies-on-a-train film from South Korea


A still from ‘Train to Busan’
A still from ‘Train to Busan’

It might be a strange thing to say about a zombie movie, but there’s a lean beauty to Train to Busan. It’s difficult to imagine this film done more efficiently, or more effectively. Take the opening three minutes. It’s a common monster movie trope—the anomaly in nature that hints at impending disaster—but what distinguishes this sequence is its economy. A truck transporting livestock is halted and sprayed by men in protective suits; they say there’s been a leak at a nearby plant. On the highway, distracted by his phone, he hits a deer, killing it. As he drives away, the animal suddenly seizes and stands up. The camera zooms in on its eyes, which are an unearthly white.

In the 10 minutes it takes to get from deer-zombie to the titular train, we’re introduced to Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an). He’s a fund manager, divorced, a conscientious but distracted father. They’re headed to Busan to drop Su-an off at her mother’s. Their fellow passengers include a hilariously spiky married couple, Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), members of a baseball team, a loathsome CEO, two old sisters and a disturbed-looking man who mutters “They’re all dead” to himself over and over again. There’s also a young woman who climbs aboard, limping, with a bite wound on her leg.

The moment the woman’s eyes turn white and she bites the attendant, the film shifts gears. Within minutes, our protagonists are being pursued across the train by the deadly (if not very intelligent) undead. Seok-woo and Sang-hwa become de facto leaders; when running is no longer an option, they start taking the fight to the zombies, whose number now includes most of the train’s passengers. With each successive encounter, we learn a little more about what these walking dead can do (shuffle quickly, spread the virus by biting) and can’t (run, open doors).

Director Yeon Sang-ho, who’s worked mostly in animation before this, displays a by-now recognizably Korean talent for sustained, dynamic filmmaking and controlled mayhem. Unlike Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer—another kinetic action film set aboard a train—there’s little social comment, apart from the one scene that seems to comment on the plight of immigrants. If there’s further subtext, it’s overshadowed by the repeated visual of zombie heads being bashed in with baseball bats. Train to Busan doesn’t make many emotional demands of the viewer, nor does it further the zombie genre in any significant way. But you don’t really need to break new ground if you can tread familiar paths so confidently.

Releases on 21 October. Dubbed in English and Hindi.

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