With its sequel Train to Busan: Peninsula being recently globally released on the Amazon Prime streaming platform, after enduring numerous release complications due to the recent pandemic, the Korean zombie film Train to Busan (2016), directed by Yeon Sang-ho, still stands as one of the best zombie movies to come out in the past ten years, standing alongside giants of the genre such as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).
The film is centred around a harried businessman, Seo Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) who neglects his young daughter Seo Su-an (Kim Su-an) in favour of work. Like Boon-Joon-Ho’s Academy-award winning Parasite (2019) and it’s predecessor, the beloved creature feature The Host (2006), this film interacts with contemporary social concerns, addressing overwork, a Confucian-inspired ideal that has led to the deaths of numerous workers, which is so prolific that it has its own name-gwarosa. The emotional gorge that the harsh demands of the workplace has driven between Seok-Woo and his daughter is evident through small scenes, such as when he discusses with a co-worker what to purchase his daughter for her upcoming birthday. After missing an important school recital by taking her to Busan to see her divorced mother via train. However, the journey is disrupted by a mysterious virus that ravages the country that transforms those infected into the ravenous undead, forcing them and the other passengers to band together for survival.
The enclosed setting of the train creates an effective atmosphere of claustrophobia as the main protagonists struggle to escape an enclosing threat and make it to salvation. The film offers impressive aerial shots of the overreaching devastation, compounding the helplessness of the train-goers, whose everyday form of transport has become a moving coffin as those inside succumb to infection. The zombies themselves are especially effective, from an eerie infected deer at the start of the film to the humans that swarm the station as a snarling horde, a la World War Z (2013), which this film borrows from but is superior to. It synthesizes both practical makeup and digital effects, notably ramping, to truly unsettling effect in the disjointed, inhuman movements of the infected.
The film also introduces a host of likeable characters, such as a high school baseball team and two comical elderly sisters (played by Yeo Soo-jung and Park Myung-sin respectively), who end up providing one of the film’s most poignant moments. However, it is the brusque, blue-collar Yoon Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) who steals the show. He provides a great foil to the self-absorbed Seok- woo, driven by his desire to protect his pregnant wife, Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi). He is arguably the true protagonist of the film, who deserved far more screen time. Another contrasting character is ruthless CEO Yon-sook (Kim Eui-Sung), who proves to be just as dangerous as the flesh-eating infected as he sacrifices as many as he can in order to save his own life. Like many zombie films, the true horror is derived not from the unknown threat of the virus, but the desperation of humans in times of crisis, which drives them to amorality.
But the biggest strength of the film, one absent from a majority of big-budget Western horror movies, is the genuine father-daughter relationship between the two main protagonists. The danger that they are plunged into forces Seok-woo to realise the depth of his love for his daughter. This serves as the catalyst for his transformation from selfish office worker to selfless action hero, culminating in one final act of sacrifice. The scene which serves as the emotional apex and one of the most moving climaxes that I’ve ever seen in any film, horror or otherwise.
Despite being almost five years old now, Train to Busan has truly stood the test of time. It is a film that, in light of recent global events, is more relevant than ever now. It demonstrates an all-too human response to disaster, showcasing the worst and best of humanity in full candid detail.