Train to Busan (2016)
When it premiered in 2016, Yeon Sang-ho's apocalyptic zombie film Train to Busan racked in breathless critical acclaim, awards in pretty much every category they give awards for, and a killer ROI (around $90m on an $8.5m budget). While it's conventional at times and the side plots sometimes smudge up the clarity of the Yeon's central vision, the adulation is more or less deserved. The bad stuff can be ignored and the good stuff is so, so good.
The non-apocalyptic storylines in Busan center on the awkward relationship between Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a divorced workaholic living in Seoul, and his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an). He seems like a nice enough guy but is definitely a shitty dad, the kind who has a secretary buy gifts for his daughter's birthday and fails to recognize that they are toys she already has. It's no wonder Su-an would rather hang with her mom in Busan. The next day, they hop on a train so Su-an can be with the good parent and Seok-woo can do business stuff on his phone. Thanks to a liverish passenger who comes aboard unnoticed at the last second, neither of those things get to happen. Right as the train pulls away, the station is overtaken by the infected.
The train is filled with likable and distinct characters, which is a good thing because when the shit goes down, the cinematography gets a little hectic. Most conspicuous are the high school baseball players in track jackets and cleats joined by their one, sole cheerleader. There's a homeless man who knows a thing or two about zombies because he's seen a thing or two about zombies; a pair of the train's crew members in bright blue coats; the buff blue-collar mensch Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), who provide the film's moral center; and a shady businessman named Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), who provides whatever the opposite of a moral center is.
They're all fun characters that provide reflections of the themes in Seok-woo and Su-an's relationship: fatherhood, family, trust, ethics, etc. But it's the zombies that deserve the lion's share of the film's adulation and awards (though it's unclear what they'd do with the awards). Some of their characteristics are boilerplate: a minute or so after being bitten by the infected, they have a lil' seizure, vomit some blood, then stand up and dedicate the rest of their "lives" to spreading the good news. What differentiates these zombies is the way they move. There's a hive mentality to their attacks that is more forceful and violent than can be put into words, trampling over each other in stampedes towards their targets with little concern for self-preservation. They lap up against windows until it crashes under their weight. They jump out of skyscrapers. They tumble over each in waves in the narrow confines of the train cars. They are very fast.
The downsides of Busan are all bummers, though forgivable. Relentless, horrific violence without acknowledging the emotional cost of it is a bit hard to stomach for 118 minutes and those are the rules of the genre: Your loved ones get bitten, you shoot them and shed a few tears, then it's off the next set-piece. But sometimes in Busan it feels like the writing tugs a little too incessantly at the heartstrings. Kim Su-an's performance as the heartbroken, terrified little girl is wonderful and well-executed, but as the closeups of her watery eyes pile up, it begins to feel a bit manipulative and almost a little sadistic. The first time I saw it, I was enrapt from start to finish, but the second time I found myself checking Twitter every time the violins swelled.
But when Busan is at its best, it is more thrilling and genuinely frightening than its counterparts. There are a few jump scares, but mostly the terror is nuanced and visceral, a gut reaction to the scale and speed of the attacks on screen. There are certain moments — a military helicopter spiraling toward the ground as soldiers are ejected and splatter on pavement, then start attacking onlookers — that gave me one of those nauseous sensations of awe and repulsion that good horror movies provoke, a titillating little stomach ache that almost feels kinda good. Or maybe I'm just coming down with something.
Train to Busan is streaming now on Netflix.