The last few years have seen the zombie genre become part of everyday pop-culture, but as the saying goes, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. As exciting as it initially was to watch fictional people struggle against the undead, the overabundance of zombie movies and shows mean that there's only so many times before the endless killing and debates over what's right and wrong get stale, and everything starts to devolve to the point of self-parody.
So with that in the back of my mind, I was already apprehensive about what Train To Busan had to offer even before I had walked into the cinema. With the well of zombie tropes well and truly worn out thanks to increasingly tiresome shows like The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead, what could this movie possibly offer that I haven't already seen before?
Well, never have I been more happy to be surprised!
***** MILD SPOILERS! *****
The story in Train To Busan is quite straightforward - a zombie virus has struck, and since the only safe haven is in Busan, all the characters embark on a dangerous train journey to Busan. The film primarily focuses on Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his struggle to get his estranged daughter Su-an (played brilliantly by Kim Su-an) to her mother in Busan, but running parallel to Seok-woo and Su-an's journey are a number of interesting stories in of themselves.
We have the somewhat mismatched-but-loving pregnant couple Seong-kyeong and Sang-hwa (played by Jung Yu-mi and Ma Dong-seok respectively), the adorable high-school couple Young-guk and Jin-hee (played by Choi Woo-shik and former Wonder Girls member Ahn So-hee respectively), the jerk business man Yong-suk (played by a perfectly cast Kim Eui-sung), and two elderly sisters who are closer than white on rice.
Now the main problem I have with the recent slate of zombie offerings is the gradual shift of focus from compelling characteristation and development to mindless killing as the narrative progresses, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Train To Busan offers up comparatively little zombie killing, and instead, the film is primarily focused on developing the large cast of characters. Don't get me wrong, there are many thrills to be had in Train To Busan and some of the action scenes are amongst the best I've seen in a long time, but the film is a rarity in that it insists it's all about exploring the characters - and actually follows up on that promise.
This ragtag group of characters are nothing new in the zombie genre, but whereas shows like The Walking Dead beats viewers over the head with inconsistent character development and repeated heavy-handed explorations of morality, director Yeon Sang-ho keeps Train To Busan's narrative arcs simple, welcome moments of levity are dropped in, and every spare minute is spent on developing each character into sympathetic heroes (except for Yong-suk - he deserved what he got).
As the cast of characters slowly dwindles under the overwhelming hordes of zombies, each loss is profoundly felt and by the time the the ending rolls around - which by the way is probably the one of more emotional ones I've sat through recently - you're a blubbering mess of emotions. Admittedly, the film is about 10 minutes and a couple of contrived complications too long, but that is easily overlooked when the characters - particularly Su-an - are so compelling.
I had lost my faith in zombie shows and movies quite some time ago, but Train To Busan has gone a long way in demonstrating that the genre still has much to offer.