Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) loves his young daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim). He wants to be an integral part of her life, however, due to his very demanding, albeit financially rewarding occupation as a fund manager, he is seldom at home. In his stead, Soo-an is looked after by Seok’s mother. Soo-an loves her grandmother, but yearns to go live with her own mother, who Seok is estranged from. Seok, as the viewer learns from a phone conversation he has with Soo-an’s mother, wants sole custody of his daughter, for reasons that are never stated in the movie. Reluctant, however, wanting to please Soo-an because it is her birthday, Seok agrees to accompany her on an early morning train ride from Seoul, South Korea to the city of Busan, so she can visit her mother. Seconds before the high-speed KTX train is about to disembark the station, a woman (Eun-kyung Shim) stumbles on board. The woman’s presence will alter the lives of all of the passengers, turning a seemingly innocent train ride into a life and death struggle for survival. Unbeknownst to those on board, a viral zombie outbreak has begun. (As an aside: The animated film “Seoul Station” is a prequel to “Train to Busan”).
The conventional zombie tropes are in place in the film: When a person is bitten by a zombie, soon afterward, they themselves will turn into a member of the undead, at which time they will lose all sense of self pertaining to the person they were. In addition to their deadly bite, the zombies in “Train to Busan,” as they were, for instance, in Oscar winning director Danny Boyle’s film “28 Days Later,” move at a quick pace. They do, however, have a weakness. They are only compelled to attack when they can see; it is something which the passengers discover early on in the film, prompting them to cover up the windows in-between train cars. Armed with that knowledge, when need be, passengers can move cautiously from one train car to the next, when the train goes through a tunnel.
The narrative for the film extends beyond just Seok and Soo-an as the focal points of the story. There are other characters, that make their presence known during the harrowing train ride. Sang Hwa (Dong-seok Ma), who dotes on his pregnant wife Sung (Yu-mi Jung), who demonstrates he will fight with his last breath to protect those he loves, is one such character the viewer should wind up rooting for. Yong-Suk (Eui-sung Kim), a self-centered and duplicitous businessman, will garner the opposite reaction. Young Gook (Woo-sik Choi), the only member of his high school baseball team to survive after the initial outbreak, is fighting to keep both himself, and his friend from school, Jin-hee (Sohee), alive until they reach safety. Furthermore, there are two elderly sisters, Jong-gil (Myung-sin Park) and In-gil (Soo-jung Ye), who seemingly can’t exist without the other. Lastly, there is a homeless man (Gwi-hwa Choi), who is first discovered hiding in the bathroom, saying “they’re all dead.”
Once it is learned that a deadly outbreak has occurred, the KTX train conductor, (Seok-yong Jeong) attempts to contact headquarters to find out where it is safe to disembark passengers. The first stop he makes is very ill-advised, but provides for an action packed sequence at a train station, where the military is supposedly going to escort those survivors on the train to a safe location. As the passengers make their way through what appears to be an abandoned station to where the military is waiting, something appears very off. The large group of soldiers sent to establish law and order, and protect those who haven’t been infected, have themselves been turned into zombies. What takes place next, is all-out adrenaline fueled chaos. Those who just left one nightmarish situation, have to fight their way back to the train, which still contains a great many zombies trapped aboard. From an intensity standpoint, this was one of the scenes that really stood out, in a film that is packed with heart pounding moments.
“Train to Busan” is a gripping, suspenseful and well paced film that offers a good balance between drama and horror. The movie was written for the screen and directed by Yeon Sang-Ho (Seoul Station). The movie is the director’s first live-action film; prior to “Train to Busan,“ he directed animated features. Parts action – drama – thriller – and horror, the film has a runtime of 118 minutes. “Train to Busan” premiered in France at the Cannes Film Festival on May 13, 2016. The dialogue is in Korean, but has English sub-titles. The cinematography by Hyung-deok Lee (A Company Man), captures the perfect feeling of claustrophobia that the train setting reduces its passengers to, especially under the dire circumstances. Furthermore, there is no headache inducing shaky camera work on display. The film is further enhanced by mostly practical effects as opposed to overutilization of CGI, as well as a soundtrack composed by Jang Young-gyu that synchs perfectly with what is transpiring on screen.