One of the last films I watched in 2016 (and it managed to crack my Top 20 of the year in the process) was South Korean horror thrill ride Train to Busan, from director Yeon Sang-Ho, whose previous three films were relentlessly told animation movies (Seoul Station, The Fake, and The King of Pigs). The most recent of these—Seoul Station—concerned people trying to survive a zombie pandemic that is unleashed in downtown Seoul, and Train to Busan seems to pick up (thematically at least) where that one left off.
Although Busan is not technically a zombie film at all—the driving force is a viral infection that turns living people into raging, biting machines; no dead people get up and walk around—it features some of the same fears and motivating factors as one. Also, the creatures seem to be fueled by pure adrenaline, making them run without seemingly getting tired and commit acts of above-average strength that normal humans cannot. They also love to bite, rip, and cause all manner of destruction in the process of spreading their disease.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Busan begins quietly enough with the story of a broken marriage and a child caught between bitter parents. Fund manager Seok-wu (Gong Yoo) is so buried in his work that he’s ignoring his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an), who is slowly growing to despise him as she begins to voice her desire to move in with her mother in another city. Seok-wu isn’t a bad guy, but his neglect is costing him his humanity and what remains of his family. He agrees to escort his daughter to his mother via the KTZ high-speed rail at the same time some type of chemical leak has occurred at a plant his company has a link to. In a fantastic sequence, as the train pulls out of the station, we notice strange things happening outside the window, as a different kind of horror show is happening between father and daughter in the foreground in the train.
Borrowing elements and a general vibe from Snowpiercer (from fellow South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho), Train to Busan quickly escalates into an all out bloodbath as one infected passenger locked in a bathroom spreads rapidly from car to car, leaving the few remaining healthy folks trapped in only a few cars at the back of the train, with a few struck closer to the front, and a whole lot of chomping freaks between them. With the conductor blissfully unaware that he is pulling a blood circus behind him, the train speeds to its stops further on up the line, some of which are already being shut down due to infestation. The mission for much of the film is for the passengers from the back of the train to find a way to the front, while cracking skulls and getting lucky along the way. (The discovery that the infected can’t see in the dark and that there a lot of tunnels along the route is almost a cheat, but it’s a fun one to play with.)
A few of the passengers standout as father and daughter make their journey, including a husband and pregnant wife pairing (Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi), as well as the requisite villain, an absolute scheming bastard of a middle-aged businessman (Kim Eui-sang), whose skill at manipulating people and events is almost more clever than the film requires, but we feel it in our bones early on that his comeuppance will be spectacular.
Busan’s special effects are a bit hit and miss, but when they nail it, the results are pretty spectacular. There’s a train-wreck sequence near the end that is so big, it almost feels out of place in this fairly intimate work, but it sure brings the scares and excitement to a head rather nicely. By setting nearly all of the action on this one moving location, the claustrophobia is amplified to such a degree that you start to breathe differently. In a film where a locked bathroom is the safest place to be and one of the only places where the characters (and the audience) can catch their breath, Train to Busan is one of the coolest, freakiest and most terrifying works slowly making its way across the country. Seek this one out, horror fans.
The film is screening only at midnight, both Friday and Saturday, January 6-7, at the Music Box Theatre. If you can’t make it out to Music Box, that’s cool. Train to Busan is available to rent digitally from Amazon, iTunes, Google, and Playstation.