Our current golden age of horror movies doesn't just apply to American horror features like Get Out, A Quiet Place or Hereditary, plenty of recent pieces of foreign horror cinema have also contributed to the onslaught of modern-day high-quality horror fare. Among the very best of those horror films, foreign or otherwise, is Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan, a 2016 zombie tale that I finally got around to watching for the first time last week. I'll be forever kicking myself for not discovering this title far sooner. It's been so long since a movie left me so constantly holding my breath in sheer dread and terror. Why did I waste time watching CHiPS when I could have been experiencing Train to Busan??
Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a fund manager who carries a selfish mindset and an immense amount of dedication to his work. He's also got an estranged relationship with his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an), who wants nothing more than to take the local train to Busan so that she can see her mother. Seok-woo decides to take his daughter to do just that on a seemingly ordinary day that soon turns into anything but that. You see, zombies have begun to rampage across the country, including on the train Seok-woo, Su-an and a whole bevy of passengers are riding on. Zombies are always a problem no matter where you are, but on a train, they're especially a nightmare that Seok-woo, his daughter and a small band of survivors now have to evade.
Just before I started watching Train to Busan, someone I know who'd already seen the movie warned me to have some tissues ready. Even with that kind of caution given to the emotional nature of Train to Busan, I still wasn't prepared for how effective the pathos of this feature is. Train to Busan is an awesome zombie movie, but even more than that, it's a poignant story of selfishness vs. selflessness playing out across numerous individual character dynamics, including the central strained father/daughter relationship between Seok-woo and Su-an. Oh, and that poignant story also heavily involves zombies. Emotionally powerful pathos and zombies, Park Joo-suk's screenplay really gives you everything you could ever want.
The characters in Train to Busan really are a total delight, though, especially in terms of how each key supporting character gets their own distinct personality to call their own. Whether it's the selfish billionaire who becomes even more of a menace than the zombies, a shell-shocked survivor of a zombie attack or scene-stealing supporting player Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), the individual players in this story arrive on-screen with as instantly recognizable and interesting figures that get put to fascinating use as the zombie chaos becomes even more and more dangerous. Nobody's wasted in this ensemble cast, least of all the central figures of Seok-woo and his daughter Su-an. Joo-suk's writing of these two particular characters manages to find plenty of ways to lend new life to the strained father/daughter dynamic that crops up a lot in horror cinema.
Instead of reminding one of past horror movie father's who struggled with connecting with their daughters, Seok-woo and Su-an become their own distinct human beings that can easily headline a film. In addition to working well on the character front, the script also finds plenty of creative places to take the concept of mashing together trains and zombies. Though such creativity is found throughout the film, the best example of it is seen in an extended group of sequences showing Seok-woo and Sang-hwa leading a group of train passengers across numerous train cars filled with zombies. In this oh so intense part of the story, Train to Busan makes great use of the unique possibilities offering up by its central premise.
In these terse scenes depicting our heroes trying to evade zombie detection, director Yeon Sang-ho's impressive ability for executing sequences of immensely stressful suspense on a visual level gets put to exceptional use. Despite filming much of the story in the cramped space of a train, Sang-ho's visual sensibilities still shine since he seems to know just where to place the camera or how to block a shot in order to get the maximum suspense possible out of a given sequence. That kind of know-how is a big reason why Train to Busan becomes such a brilliantly exciting albeit emotionally trying experience. All of that creativity on a screenwriting level is certainly matched by Yeon Sang-ho's creativity as a director.
The expansive cast also demonstrates plenty of innovation of their own in a collection of performances that produces great work from top-to-bottom. If there is a stand-out in the cast though, it's easily Ma Dong-seok in an outstanding turn as the character Sang-hwa. Dong-seok has compelling charisma for days on end and his portrayal of the characters no-nonsense personality is a delight on its own and even more delightful when juxtaposed against the presence of chaotic zombies. Ma Dong-seok's performance alone would have made Train to Busan a winner, but happily, there are plenty other parts of the movie also firing on all creative cylinders. We've had a lot of great horror movies from all over the world in the last few years but Train to Busan may be among the very best of the pack.