Following a motley crew on a bumpy ride from Seoul to Busan to escape a zombie outbreak, writer-director Yeon Sang-ho’s action-horror railroad movie “Train to Busan” pulses with relentless locomotive momentum. As an allegory of class rebellion and moral polarization, it proves just as biting as Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi dystopia “Snowpiercer,” while delivering even more unpretentious fun. Yeon has displayed recognizably cinematic sensibilities in his last three indie anime features — “King of Pigs,” “Fake” and “Seoul Station” — so it’s not surprising that he transitions easily into live-action, though his scathing, nihilistic vision of humanity is watered down for wider mainstream appeal. Buyers for Asian-friendly genre products should clamber to board “Train.”
Despite the vibrancy of genre cinema in Korea, you can count the country’s zombie films on the fingers of one hand. But whether it’s alleged prototype “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” rip-off “A Monstrous Corpse” or the more recent “Zombie School” (2014), they’ve all been slapdash and unoriginal.
However, with a MERS epidemic sweeping South Korea in 2015 and soaring discontent with corruption and economic disparity, a zombie apocalypse serves as a potent allegory for the dog-eat-dog world. In “Seoul Station,” Yeon depicted a homeless enclave inside the central train station as the ground zero of a zombie outbreak. “Train to Busan” picks up where that film left off. While the anime’s excoriation of the police and army is softened in the live-action sequel, scenarios of humans and zombies precariously separated by carriages fittingly symbolize the dangerous gap between society’s haves and have-nots.
Workaholic fund manager Seok-wu (Gong Yoo) takes his estranged young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) on the KTX high-speed train to Busan to visit his ex-wife. The last person to hop on is a teenage girl whose bare thighs are crisscrossed with bulging veins. Yet, passengers and train crew get more alarmed over a homeless man hiding out in the washroom — one of the film’s frequent barbed comments on snobbery in Korean society.
The first 15 minutes tease audiences with glimpses of zombie threat, like a shadow lunging spastically across the platform, or ominous news reports of riots in the capital. Once the infected girl claims the first victim, however, the action surges ahead with exhilarating mayhem, abetted by the claustrophobic layout of train compartments.
The main reason zombies rank less scarily on the ghoulish scale is their slow waddling gait, but the resident evil here is so deliriously energetic and agile it’s like they’re powered by ginseng and soju. Yeon’s background in animation definitely lends their assault a cartoonish ferocity. The creatures’ only weakness is the fact they see poorly in the dark, giving rise to several mini-climaxes when Seok-wu exploits this to outwit them.
Whereas in Hollywood disaster or apocalyptic movies, the chief protagonist tends to take charge and puts him or herself in the line of fire, Seok-wu subverts the cliché by acting on his elitist, self-preserving instincts, telling Su-an off for giving her seat to an old lady, and shutting the door on escaping passengers Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Sung-kyu (Jung Yu-mi, “Oki’s Movie”). It is up to Su-na, with her child’s innate decency, and the burly but dauntless Sang-hwa to undo the financial go-getting, cutthroat attitude, so he can learn that it is cooperation and altruism that ensures survival in a catastrophe.
Fans of Yeon’s edgier animations may miss his remorselessly evil characters, whose misogyny, sadism and dirt-filthy expletives exert repulsive fascination. In their place, “Train” features something one never expected from Yeon — nice people — such as a pair of high school lovebirds who stay faithful till the end, two deeply affectionate elderly sisters and the selfless tramp. The only major villain comes in the form of a a middle-aged corporate weasel (Kim Eui-sang) who’s calculating cowardice is bland compared with the conmen, religious hypocrites or bullies in Yeon’s past works. But his ability to incite the passengers into callous behavior is instrumental in illustrating how mob mentality works.
Given the sheer velocity of the action, some emotional connection is needed to prevent the film from turning into sheer technical exercise. Thus, Seok-wu’s gradual reform and other humane elements are essential to offset the insentient aggression of the zombies. Their sentimentality are also gleefully tempered by the jumpy, unpredictable script, which constantly teeters between nerve-racking and hilarious, as when Seok-wu hears his mother zombifying over the phone while still bitching about her daughter-in-law.
Shooting in standard 1.85.1 instead of widescreen, the confined mise-en-scene nonetheless affords lenser Lee Hyung-deok plenty of room for nifty camerawork of stunts in unexpected nooks. Washrooms become thrilling battlegrounds and unlikely sanctuaries. An extended sequence in which the driver tries to switch trains is choreographed with the utmost suspense.
However, like most Korean blockbusters, the production cannot resist showing off its visual and special effects clout, resulting in a bombastic stunt toward the end that’s incongruous with the film’s lean, gritty style. Likewise, the screenplay piles on the hysteria and the schmaltz in the last leg, and the hitherto restrained cast have no choice but to dial up performances to a borderline farcical level.
Craft contributions are top-drawer, especially breakneck editing by Yang Jin-mo, who raises suspense to nearly unbearable levels. Music by Jang Young-gyu and sound effects by Choi Tae-young are both sparingly and effectively deployed for genuine shocks rather than false jolts.