Train to Busan is one of those stories horror was built to tell. It’s superficial simplicity and brutal efficiency covers a story that’s equal parts social commentary, tragedy and action film and the movie delivers on all three of those genres. A US remake is in the works but if you can, you should see the original first. Here’s why.
Train to Busan opens with a farmer making his way through a quarantine zone. He’s lost his animals to an outbreak before but is assured that this is just a minor precaution. He drives through, gets a phone call, fumbles for his phone and runs something over. He swears, gets out to make sure the animal is clear of his wheels and drives off.
It’s a tiny little scene, we never see these characters again and yet its the strongest opening to a horror movie I’ve seen in a long time. Not just because the visual of the deer twisting itself to its feet is impressive but because of how realistic it is. This is how catastrophes happen, through simple, inescapable collisions of human error and human apathy. The world ends not with a bang, but a missed phone call.
That grounded approach runs throughout the movie. Park Joo-suk’s script is full of the sort of people you share a commute with every day but who all have rich internal lives of their own. A rowdy high school sports team, a stressed out executive, a pregnant woman and her slightly over-doting husband, a pair of elderly sisters. And a dad trying, and failing, to connect with his young daughter. None of them are bad people, but none of them are especially good either and Park Joo-suk’s script forces all of them to confront that fact as the train barrels onwards.
Front and centre are Gong Yoo and Kim Su-an as Seok-woo and Soo-An, the father and daughter. Seok-woo is a recently divorced dad who repeatedly chooses his career ver his daughter and Soo-An has had enough. They’re only on the train because of her insistence on visiting her mother in Busan for her birthday and neither of them wants the other there. This is the relationship the movie orbits around and it’s especially interesting that while both are concerned for the other’s safety, Soo-An spends much of the film being the only one actually engaged with the situation. More than once, Seok-woo tries to game a solution out using his contacts and is repeatedly thwarted while his daughter’s straight ahead compassion for those around her is key to their survival.
This is one of the places where the film gets chewy, as Seoul-woo’s work as a fund manager leads other characters to naturally assume he only cares about himself. For much of the film, he does too and the manner in which that turns around is fascinating. His change of character is inspired by the constant danger his daughter is in, the constant heroism of the passengers around him and, also, their cowardice.
One of the film’s most powerful sequences sees a group of characters fight their way through carriages full of zombies only to be ‘banished’ because people are frightened they’re infected. The ringleader of this group is Yon-suk, a CEO. Played by Keir Eui-sung, he is everything Seok-woo thinks he wants to be; rich, powerful and only concerned with his own safety. He’s also one of the final survivors and the confrontation between the two men, in a lesser movie, would have been little more than a fist fight. Here, while blows are thrown, the most telling moment comes when they first see each other after a frantic chase through a railway station, Yon-Suk, who by this point is directly responsible for the deaths of at least four major characters, is infected and terrified. Speaking like a small child, he asks for help and just for a second you see the root of his monstrosity; his evil is based not in malice, but in simple, understandable terror. He’s what Seok-woo could be and yet isn’t.
The reason for that is entirely down to the other passengers, especially Ma Dong-seok’s Sang-hwa. An expectant father, Sang-hwa is this wonderfully deadpan, laconic presence in the movie. His easygoing, bantering relationship with his wife Seong-kyong is the absolute photographic negative of Seok-woo’s relationships and his willingness to put his life on the line for others is the last thing Seok-woo wants to do. He’s the father Seok-woo thinks he is and the natural way the two men fall into each other’s orbit is one of the film’s best elements. Seek-woo is wiry and small and upper class. Sang-hwa is a working class mountain of a man and completely unconcerned with anything Seok-woo is obsessed with.
Time and again, the two men work together and each time they do, you can see Sang-hwa’s example changing Seok-woo a little. This leads to the best sequence in the movie as Seok-woo, Sang-hwa and Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik), the last surviving baseball player make their way down the train. Sang-hwa, his forearms covered in tape, punches and wrestles his way through the first wave. Seok-woo and Yong-guk, armed with baseball bats, fight off any he doesn’t put down. Three entirely different methodologies collide in a close quarters, unbearably tense fifteen minutes of cinema. Time and again, Seok-woo thinks of a workaround. Time and again, Sang-hwa puts himself between his wife and compatriots and harm. They’re a classic duo; soldier and thinker and its rarely been better delivered than it is here.
It also powers the movie’s closing act were all these elements come together with Yeon Sang-ho’s direction and Lee Heung-Dyok’s cinematography. Forced to leave the train at a wrecked yard, the characters get caught up in a horde of zombies, an exploding train and their own fallible natures. There’s one shot in particular, of the last few standing sprinting for the last train and pursued by a horde of zombies that’s genuinely skin-crawling, Likewise the grotesque human raft the zombies make to try and get aboard the train and a white knuckle sequence between two crashed trains. There is no let up here, no polite answer or easy get out and Park Joo-suk’s script is a textbook example of how to do modern day horror right. These people are horribly under prepared, riding the crest of an unprecedented disaster and nothing is certain, especially their safety.
And that’s ultimately what makes Train to Busan so great. It manages to hit the exact spot so many horror movies miss; exploring the terror of being a normal person in an abnormal situation. It refuses to conform to what you’d expect from a story and instead gives you deserve from one. Horror, truth and the most inventive horror movie in years.
Train to Busan is available now.