By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Gong Yoo, Kim Soo-ahn and Ma Dong-seok
Written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho
Well Go USA
Having scarcely contributed to the undead genre in the past, South Korea now delivers the best and most exciting zombie thriller in years with TRAIN TO BUSAN. This is a huge movie, too—it’s like Korea’s WORLD WAR Z, and it knocks the American one on its ass.
Opening in select cities today after making its North American premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia festival last night, TRAIN TO BUSAN is the live-action feature debut of Yeon Sang-ho, who has previously created a number of politically charged animated films. The most recent, SEOUL STATION, is a prequel to TRAIN, which is not quite as scathing as Yeon’s past work but nonetheless has an undercurrent of class commentary pulsing beneath its rocket-paced action and grisly horror. Its hero, Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a Seoul fund manager whose devotion to his job has clouded his sympathy toward others and distracted him from his little daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn). When he gives in to her insistence on visiting his ex-wife in Busan, he has no idea how much the trip will test his compassion for his fellow man and woman.
Yeon comes up with a creative way to introduce the coming of the zombie virus in TRAIN’s opening scene, and once the eponymous excursion begins and an infected girl begins spreading the rage plague among the riders, he comes up with an endlessly inventive series of setpieces that alternate between intense close-quarters combat and splashy, smashy big-scale action. Seok-woo’s fellow passengers who become key players include Sang-ha (Ma Dong-seok), who at first comes off like a working-class jerk but proves to be a major two-fisted asset in fighting off the slavering attackers, his pregnant wife Sung-gyeong (Jung Yu-mi), student baseballer Yung-guk (Choi Woo-sik) and Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee), a classmate with a crush on him. Even as they’re engaged a nonstop fight for their lives, they and other characters—all well-acted down the line, with particular notice due the excellent young Kim—have opportunities to reveal their humanity, and their choices always make sense in the face of danger.
They face plenty of it as TRAIN TO BUSAN hurtles along, powered by Yeon and editor Yang Jin-mo’s relentless pacing and topnotch effects (makeup by Kwak Tae-yong and Hwang Hyo-kyun, visual supervised by Jung Hwang-su). The director occasionally widens the film’s focus to reveal the devastation the plague has wrought upon cities along the route, and it becomes unclear whether there’s any safe place for the ride to end—which only adds to the considerable suspense. And a special mention should go to whoever choreographed the zombie movements; their grotesque contortions are truly horrific, as are moments in which the hungry hordes literally fall over each other in their pursuit of human prey.