★★★ / ★★★★
There comes a point in “Train to Busan,” written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon, where the viewers are forced to consider who the true monsters are: the ravenous undead, presumably infected by a virus, acting upon the biological need to spread the infection or the healthy men and women who must make choices on whether or not their fellow uninfected deserve a chance to live given the possibility that they have been exposed to the presumed virus. It is clear that this is when the material is at its most compelling.
We have seen this type of zombie before: fast-moving, they often swarm, and nearly impossible to incapacitate, as if the pain sensors in their brain have been disabled completely. The facial and bodily cosmetics are spot-on and convincing, no detail considered to be too small or insignificant despite the fact that the living dead rapidly twitch and contort, supported by rapid camera movements and swift editing. The willingness to have such a level of detail pays off during the calculated closeups of the flesh eaters; it makes them all the more terrifying and quite beautiful to look at.
Although the plot involves a zombie apocalypse in South Korea, we see story unfold from the perspective of a fund manager father and his neglected young daughter who are unable to relate to one another. They are so disconnected, the little girl, Soo-an (Soo-an Kim), tells her father, Seok Woo (Yoo Gong), that her birthday wish is to be with her mother in Busan—her father does not have to come, if he so chooses, he simply must take her to the bullet train.
There is great scene in the middle of the picture that defines their divide. After offering her seat to an old woman, the girl is pulled aside by her father and he tells her that she needn’t be so kind, especially during tough times—she needs to look out only for herself. The daughter looks at her parent with not only disappointment but also shame. But this is not a story about the father learning to become a better parent because that is to assume that Seok Woo and Soo-an will survive till the end. The material consistently makes a point that the story is about survival. The two just happen to be in the middle of it.
Despite a handful of great decisions by the filmmakers, there is one detail that is left overlooked, inexcusable for a two-hour film. That is, it fails to provide an explanation, even a superficial one, as to why certain individuals turn into zombies right after they are bitten but others have at least a few minutes. We get the impression that the conversion functions through convenience: Those considered to be the “more important” characters are given a chance to say goodbye, one way or another, in order to make us more emotional. This does not fit the survival angle of the story because, in reality, sometimes deaths are so sudden, there is no goodbye or resolution. There is only shock, terror, being forced to move forward for the time being.
“Busanhaeng” stands out from other zombie movies because it takes place mostly inside a bullet train where space is highly limited and an infection can spread like wildfire. A memorable scene involves one party having to move through several train cars in order to get to their loved ones… but the cars in between are plagued with the undead. They cannot get to their destination with strength alone. Not even with just smarts. Luck plays a role, but even that’s not enough. The picture bursts with small creativities and delivers expected thrills.