The last thing in the world that “Seok-woo” (Gong Yoo) wants to do is take his adorable daughter “Su-an” (Kim Su-an) on a train ride to Busan. Tomorrow is Su-an’s birthday and she is desperate to get down to Busan, a resort city in the Southern part of the Republic of Korea. Like any young girl she misses her mother terribly. Seok-woo is a very busy fund manager and the stress of work is even worse than usual. Which is how he has justified to himself not spending time with his daughter. They live with his mother, who Seok-woo has relied on to care for Su-an and she encourages her son to try to mend his crumbling marriage while in Busan.
Thanks to an opening sequence at a quarantine station involving a deer that appeared to be roadkill, we know something’s rotten in the ROK. But it seems like the train will make a safe escape from the station before the hordes of the undead can threaten them, until two people board at the very last second. Soon the train is beginning to fill with zombies, and these aren’t the kind that move at a snail’s pace.
The focus of the film is on Seok-woo and Su-an although there are others at risk. “Sung-kyung” (Jung Yu-mi) is pretty, pregnant and very much in love with “Sang-hwa” (Ma Dong-seok), the father of her unborn child. He’s a big burly sort with an attitude to match. Others aboard the train are members of a baseball team, and then there’s “Yong-suk” (Kim Eui-sung). He’s the COO of a transportation company and his willingness to sacrifice others to save himself seems to be a social statement about disregard for the safety of the public that led to the sinking of the MV Sewol, where over 300 people died.
Like the brilliant Snowpiercer, setting the action aboard a train with separate compartments makes for great set pieces involving movement away from and toward the dangers of the every increasing number of the undead. As the train travels further and further away from Seoul, reports come in to the passengers about how there may be no safe place to stop before the train makes it all the way to Busan. The question is, can the passengers survive and can the train’s conductor get the train all the way to its destination.
Zombie films where the zombies move rapidly and go through all sorts of contortions as they go from dead to undead are much more pleasing and frightening to the eye. The close quarters of the train’s compartments and the vulnerabilities of a number of the passengers as those who are able-bodied do their best to protect them ratchet up the tension remarkably. The poignancy comes as Seok-woo realizes that the most important thing in his life is in fact Su-an and he will make any sacrifice to keep her safe. It’s very well done, like the rest of the film. What makes the excellence of Train to Busan is the fact that this is the first live-action, full-length feature from writer/director Yeon Sang-ho.