For fans of “Snowpiercer” and “World War Z,” Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan,” should be next on your watch list. The movie’s plot is set into motion when an unknown virus spreads across South Korea and causes a zombie apocalypse. In the opening scene, a deer — presumingly infected with the virus — rises from the dead after being run over by a truck, establishing the film’s eerie tone. The stage is set.
Next, the audience meets Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a workaholic fund manager and divorced father who maintains a distant relationship with his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an). For her birthday, Seok-woo buys Su-an a Wii, forgetting that he had previously given her the same exact gift for Children’s Day. After some convincing from his mother (Lee Joo-shil), Seok-woo agrees to give Su-an the birthday wish she truly wanted: a visit to her mother.
Together, they set out to take the high-speed Korea Train Express from Seoul to Busan, only a few hours ride. Earlier that morning, Seok-woo and Su-an witness a group of emergency vehicles rush by, foreshadowing the mayhem that will soon transpire. At the station, the last passenger to board the train is an infected woman, who runs into a passenger car and goes unnoticed by the crew members. Once the train departs, she fully transforms into a zombie and attacks an attendant. Chaos ensues as the virus spreads and passengers quickly turn into flesh-eating zombies. From this moment on, the film is packed with non-stop action, and it is a treat to watch.
Seok-woo and Su-an are joined by a diverse cast of characters, ranging in age and socioeconomic status. The film’s roster includes working class Yoon Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), arrogant COO Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), a high school baseball team, a pair of elderly sisters, and an unnamed homeless man. Departing from the conventions of most zombie-action films, “Train to Busan” takes time to flesh out its characters, ensuring that the audience is engaged by both the action scenes and the emotional beats. All of the characters have distinct and unique stories that become interwoven throughout the film as each of them fight to survive.
The film’s tension and fight scenes are enhanced by the claustrophobic setting of the train. When Seok-woo, Sang-hwa, and a baseball player named Min Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik) are trapped at the back of the train, they must fight their way through railroad cars of zombies to reach their loved ones at the front of the train. Along the way, they employ innovative tactics and make use of their environment to evade the zombies, including arming themselves with baseball bats and duct taping their arms, one of the areas most vulnerable to zombie bites. They also use the darkness of the tunnels on the route to pass the zombies unnoticed.
Although “Train to Busan” is a zombie horror film, it is also a movie with a message. One of the main themes of the film is the importance of empathy. When Seok-woo attempts to close the door on Sang-hwa and pregnant wife Seong-kyeong, Sang-hwa calls Seok-woo out on his “every-man-for-himself” mentality. In contrast to Seok-woo, Sang-hwa is compassionate and brave, always putting the safety of other passengers over his own. Seok-woo’s selfish actions draw parallels to those of Yon-suk, who constantly endangers passengers for his own self-interests. Yon-suk serves as a reminder of what the type of person Seok-woo will become if he continues down his path of narcissism. Even young Su-an recognizes her father’s lack of empathy. “You only care about yourself,” she cries. “That’s why mommy left.” As the film progresses and the threat of the zombies increases, Seok-woo begins to reevaluate his past behavior and starts to care for others, resulting in one of the most satisfying character arcs in a recent horror movie.
Thanks to its talented cast, impressive fight sequences, and thought-provoking themes, “Train to Busan” easily joins the ranks of the best zombie movies. While the zombies are terrifying in their own right, they are never the primary focus of the movie. Instead, Yeon makes the smart decision to have the film be centered on its characters, their motivations, and the choices they make in an extreme apocalyptic setting. By doing so, “Train to Busan” takes viewers on not only an entertaining and action-packed journey, but a memorable and emotional one as well.
The USG Movies program, sponsored by Undergraduate Student Government, typically brings films to the Princeton Garden Theatre for free student viewing. The program has adapted to the virtual semester by unlocking a new movie each Thursday on Canvas and hosting a discussion of the week’s movie each Saturday at 9 p.m. All films can be streamed for free by University students.