Written by: Matt Molgaard
Directed by: Sang-ho Yeon
Cast: Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma
I can’t pick up a zombie novel without throwing up in my mouth, but for some mysterious reason I’m still hooked on the undead when featured on the screen. Unlike novels, which hit the masses by the hundreds annually, we only see a half dozen or so zombie flicks arrive inside a calendar year. Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan is one of the few flicks featuring shambling corpses (okay, they don’t do much shambling in this flick) to arrive in 2016, but it’s the best by an insane margin. In fact, not only is this one a standout zombie film of 2016, it’s one of the best genre flicks of the year, no debate.
The story focuses on Seok and his daughter Soo-an, who board a train headed for a nearby city where they’ll meet with Seok’s estranged wife to celebrate Soo-an’s birthday. Soo-an’s an emotionally strained young lady as a direct result of her father’s phoned in impression of a father. See, Seok’s a selfish dude who puts himself before everyone, offspring included. But the emotional duress that threatens to rip this family apart is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg – the terror they’re about to encounter on this train is a far greater threat, as a broken family is reparable, but combating a sudden zombie outbreak isn’t quite as easy.
Yeon’s emphasis on character development is one of the focal strengths that sets Train to Busan apart from other similar efforts. The commentary in the film homes in on familial tension, discrimination and the mindset of the modern day’s working man. And Yeon – who, for the record, also writes the screenplay – does an excellent job of capturing organic human emotions on screen. The fact that he’s able to do that while trekking through countless zombie tropes (which somehow don’t feel too tired in this instance) is nothing short of inspiring.
We’re gifted a slew of stellar performances which in turn leads to introductions of a handful of very memorable characters. No one featured in the ensemble underwhelms, which, for a zombie flick, feels like a certified miracle. While no one stumbles, additional love has to be hurled in the direction of Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim and Dong-seok Ma, who plays the hilarious tough guy that constantly puts it all on the line to ensure his pregnant wife makes it to some form of a safe zone. These three performers in particular are breathtaking, their every line feeling organic and relatable. To recognize the cast as a successful lot isn’t beginning to express the impact of their work; this lot is brilliant.
The film isn’t as gory or graphic as most modern day zombie flicks, but that doesn’t steal anything from the aesthetic strength of the final product. It looks brilliant and there are a few particular scenes (watch for the first sight of zombies falling from the sky) that really come to life. The fact that Yeon underplays the visual jolts speaks to his ability to illuminate the finer aspects of storytelling, which should, ideally, be a top priority for all filmmakers. Don’t take that as an indicator that the movie lacks intense visuals, because it has enough plasma to keep the bloodlust of most genre fans sated, it may just feel a bit disappointing to those who seek an overt dose of blood and guts.
It took me months to get around to reviewing this film, and I swore I’d jump on a review immediately following a mid-summer screening (in a rather shoddy theater in So-Cal, might I add), I freely admit. But life caught up to me and I found myself buried rather quickly. But the film’s impression on viewers has led me back to a self-made promise, as this is the first zombie film (that I can recall) to spark major fan chatter since Zombieland. A friend reached out just a few days ago to talk on the film for a bit, and his adoration, as a non-fan of the genre, left me inspired to dig into the memory banks in order to issue a quality recommendation to fans. If there’s any movie out there that far exceeded expectations this year, it’s Train to Busan, which I hoped would be entertaining, and was pleasantly surprised to learn was actually mystifying for all the right reasons. You want to watch a killer zombie flick? Watch Train to Busan.