Any good zombie film has to have three components working in perfect synchronicity for it to be a success: a cavalcade of inventive gory deaths, a few salient points on society and the human condition, and a whole lot of people doing stupid and selfish things, which may collapse neatly into the prior component.
Train to Busan, from South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho, manages to spin all of its plates equally, and eloquently for longer than most Zombie films manage. It is biting in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Like Snowpiercer before it, the central conceit is to take a genre movie, but place it on a train for added focus. Busan is less obvious with its train carriages as social classes metaphor, but nevertheless explores the familiar tensions – namely, who is in charge, and who do we let in?
Our narrative anchor is salaryman and divorced father Seok-woo (Yoo Gong), who is trying to complete the simple task of taking his daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) to see her mother for her birthday; a quotidian mundanity that explodes into high-speed nightmare as a mysterious infection brings people back from the dead. The zombies are portrayed excellently as a forceful, feral tide of limbs and teeth that have little concern for their own safety, smashing through glass and flinging themselves from great heights with little hesitation, at times buffeting and erupting like waves over the claustrophobic geography of trains and stations.
Given the film’s limited setting, it would have been easy to go with shamblers to offset the logistics of conducting action in cramped conditions, but Yeon Sang-ho choreographs the chaos smartly, curating a number of tense and inventive set pieces involving tunnels and crashing train carriages that put the cast in a position where inventivity is the key to survival, and rarely do their actions feel contrived.
As ever, the real enemy ends up being the pettiness and self interest that drives survivors to do awful things, yet a common motif in Train to Busan is sacrifice for the greater good. You’ll likely guess who the final survivors will before the story reaches its terminus, but given the verve with which it is pulled off, it doesn’t really matter. Whilst it loses some steam towards the end, it’s a tight, effective film full of shock and gore, that loses none of its humanity or compassion despite how vicious it gets.
[Luke Shaw – @fulloffeathers]