Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Stars: Yoo Gong, Soo-ann Kim, Dong-seok Ma
Anyone who’s had to rely on public transport during peak times knows; hell is other people. The ignorant, the dimwitted, the obnoxious, the unnecessarily ugly and their equally unappealing spouses, the drinkers, the drunks, the space-hogging cyclists and lets definitely not forget that special brand of person who thinks that their music taste ought to be your music taste. Oh, and school kids. The goddamn school kids.
Train To Busan takes the general awfulness of other people on public transport and monsterises it, throwing in all the other terrible pitfalls of these services to boot; delays, confusing doors, ineffective staff, unexpected obstacles… it’s all here in Sang-ho Yeon’s colourful zombie actioner, successful enough in its native South Korea to power overseas and onto UK shores (if you can find it).
Yoo Gong stars as Seok Woo, a junior executive managing a fund in the big city who is bordering estrangement from his young daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim). After blundering her birthday he promises to take her to see her mother some cities away in Busan. Their train journey is destined to put them both through the wringer as, on the fringes of this set up, a zombie-like infection is devouring society. And it only takes one infected to get through those sliding car doors to let carnage loose on the tracks.
Busan (like public transport) is most effective when it is in motion, settling into a groove once it’s world has been established and the movie starts delivering on its high concept conceit. Yeon’s mindless flesh-eaters are not the re-animated dead and take the more popular line these days of thrashing, high-speed infected. The origin of the outbreak is almost inconsequential, but it’s timing is important to events on the train; this is not an established event, and the chaos of an initial panic and the ensuing uncertainty amplifies the bad decisions and accidents in this high-pressure environment.
Additional key commuters pile up, surrounding Seok Woo and Soo-an as both people to root for and revile. Dong-seok Ma is especially memorable as heavy-set father-to-be Sang Hwa; his pregnant wife portrayed by Yu-mi Yeong makes for a bluntly sympathetic presence also. Elsewhere the more craven side of humanity is given face by Eui-Sung Kim. His fear-mongering businessman Yong-Suk throws spanners into the works as dangerous as the marauding infected. He’s a caricature – as much as anyone is – but a ruthlessly effective one.
Indeed there’s a degree of class-divide commentary occurring in Train To Busan. Both our erstwhile villain and our supposed hero share a middle class arrogance that they are in some way of priority aboard the train. At different times in the film both presume that they can decide who gets to live and who does not. Yeon is canny enough to allow such polemics to share a sketchy moral ambiguity. His film at large takes a dim view of humanity. At one point a lesser character seems to embody Yeon’s least forgiving tendencies, openly inviting the demise of all aboard the train.
His film is most successful right in the middle. After an unexpected stop takes the wind out of it a little, it picks up and them some. There’s a video game quality to Seok Woo and co’s journey through train cars, not least in the way the infected sometimes stampede Katamari-style in a rolling ball of mouths and flailing limbs. In one car we’re inside a beat ’em up, in the next we’ve switched (effectively) to stealth mode. Once the infected have got over their initial spasmodic rage, they settle down (much in the style of those seen in The Girl With All The Gifts) and respond only to stimuli. Crossing their paths only requires a little nerve, a little patience and a lot of concentration.
All the while it’s engaging, brightly rendered and, at it’s best, breathlessly paced, if running a little light on genuine surprises. Yeon consistently (even tirelessly) changes up the situation in order to mine it for more material, but things do tilt to expectation once Yeon’s scenarios are set to play out. He has the budget behind him (‘zombie’ horror hasn’t looked so pretty in a long time) and he’s assembled a functioning and often incredibly fun ride here for the most part. But it quickly becomes apparent that his intent is to whittle these survivors down until he’s run out the clock. Once that’s clear, Busan becomes something of an exercise if you let it.
Quick as his bullet train accelerates through the South Korean countryside, Busan is also an overlong journey to undertake, running out of steam before it reaches its final destination. As before, once the action leaves the train, the urge to persist with this story dampens. This could’ve been a brisk and punchy 90 minutes (or less) instead of a staggered and occasionally ambling two hours.
Nevertheless, in a tired, tired genre, Train To Busan stands out as a comparative success with plenty of energy to spare, at least until it exhausts itself. Not quite as silly as you might expect, and a little more prone to melodrama than it perhaps needs to be, but an agreeable alternative to much of what’s presently available on the UK market.