The idea of zombie fiction featuring great character development and performances was old hat by the time of “Train to Busan” (2016); the Tens were dominated by TV’s “The Walking Dead,” after all. But while the Korean film from writer Park Joo-suk and director Yeon Sang-ho doesn’t break new ground, it covers every inch of the old ground expertly, giving us an elite piece of zombie fiction that steadily plows forward and never runs off the track.
It’s remarkable how many little character arcs and beats are worked into “Busan,” which has recently gained a new layer of scary resonance with the coronavirus that started in China and has hit Korea and Japan hard.
The centerpiece is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a fund manager who spends all his time at work. Although he loves her and doesn’t want to lose her in the divorce, he pays so little attention to his daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an), that he buys her a Wii game system two holidays in a row. He’s taking Su-an on the train to visit her mother when the zombie outbreak happens. (To be fair, the girl could use one of the Wiis at her mom’s place, right?)
Seok-woo and the audience soak up bits of humanity – learning from examples both good and bad – throughout the journey, including Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a big but loveable jokey guy; Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik), a timid and shy baseball player; Jin-hee (Sohee), a cute cheerleader who likes Yong-guk; Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), a rich executive who only looks out for himself; and a terrified homeless man (Choi Gwi-hwa) who might have hidden qualities.
Park and Yeon create gripping incidents, such as one group’s need to get from car 9 to the main group of survivors in car 13, with zombies filling the cars in between. These incidents test everyone’s mettle and morals. The most thematically striking incident is when Yon-suk rallies a carload of passengers to not let the straggling group in on the grounds that they might be infected (even though they clearly are not).
Here, “Busan” has something to say about mob mentality but perhaps also class divisions. The straggling group is now covered in blood and gore, linking them all with the homeless man. Korea doesn’t have the race issues of the USA; instead it has class issues, as “Parasite” (2019) so richly illustrates. But that issue is partially driven by outward appearance: Since the straggling group looks like homeless people now, the clean survivors have a clear target for their fear-based anger.
Yet it’s the personal relationships more so than wider moral lessons that resonate. Seok-woo and Su-an have the best father-daughter story in a zombie flick since “Maggie” from one year earlier. Smaller yet memorably haunting moments include someone crying over a writhing-in-pain loved one who has been infected; her writhing turns into a vicious attack even as he continues to cry.
“Busan” uses the super-fast zombie style pioneered by “World War Z” (2013), leading to some striking (and amusing, on some level) moments, such as a whole pile of zombies latched on to the end of a train. The film outlines the rules of these zombies within the adventure itself; we absorb exposition at the same time as we’re wrapped up in a tense sequence.
While much of the action takes place on the train, the train terminals are striking, too, in an empty “Langoliers” fashion. Our isolated characters on the train are just a little behind the rest of the country in learning what has happened, a situation reminiscent of 2007’s “The Mist.”
The zombie outbreak and governmental/military response in “Train to Busan” arguably happens a little too quickly, but I think that’s part of the point: It’s scary to think how normalcy can so swiftly give way to chaos and then to the new (worse) normal. And in such a situation, even the most work-obsessed and self-interested people remember what’s important in life.