MONTREAL — In what will undoubtedly be called “Snowpiercer”-with-zombies in countless reviews (well, including this one), director Sang-ho Yeon’s “Train To Busan,” making its North American premiere at Fantasia Film Festival, has a hook that sells the sizzle in a few short words: On a train hurtling across South Korea, passengers must fight to survive against horde of zombies. What that description won’t tell you is that Yeon, making his live-action debut, has neither the thematic depth or visceral chops of Bong Joon-ho and his post-apocalyptic picture. Which is not to say that “Train To Busan” doesn’t have its merits, but the film is at its most comfortable, and least engaging, when indulging in familiar genre tropes.
Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is a divorced, single father who seems to have a new relationship to fully occupy his time: his job. While he loves his daughter Su-an (Su-an Kim), his focus on work inevitably makes him negligent to her needs, and for her birthday, all she’d rather do is head home to Busan to be with her mother. Still smarting from the split, and battling with his ex-wife over Su-an’s care, Seok-woo is compelled to accompany his daughter on the train trip, as much to prove to himself he can be a capable parent, as to his child and her mother. But as you already know, the journey will get ugly.
Penned by Joo-suk Park, “Train To Busan” is not overly concerned with establishing the reason for the outbreak of the undead; it’s your run-of-the-mill, vaguely defined chemical outbreak of some kind. Instead, the movie puts its focus, at least in the early going, on the characters and attempts to give them an arc. Seok-woo’s selfish heart, like the Grinch, will grow a couple of sizes bigger by the final act as he learns quickly that only by working with others regardless of their social standing does he and Su-an have a chance to survive. This means forging an alliance with the gruff, blue-collar teddy bear Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Sung-kyung (Yu-mi Jung), while also taking a leadership role to serve as a role model for Su-an, and hopefully proving along the way he can be the father she needs.
It might sound like simple stuff, but it’s effective enough for a movie that, once the undead come racing in, doesn’t have a lot of room to pause for dramatic beats. And it’s through the remarkable performance by Su-an Kim that “Train To Busan” has some well-earned emotional material. Watching her witness the worst of humanity — particularly during one sequence when two groups of train passengers are divided by fear and work against each of their mutual interest with horrifying results — keeps “Train To Busan” grounded enough to keep it from entirely slipping away into generic zombie-thriller territory. Unfortunately, Yeon does himself no favors, and while he receives good performances from his ensemble, the story and staging of the action ultimately undoes a lot of goodwill.
One of the key ingredients to the success of “Snowpiercer” was in Bong Joon-ho’s ability to very clearly lay out the geography of the train, while ensuring each battle on the way to the front was distinctive. It kept the movie from growing repetitive, a feat that “Train To Busan” is unable to avoid. We’re never really certain just how long or short the train is, or how many people are on board, and since it’s a commuter vehicle, each carriage unfortunately looks largely the same, which only emphasizes the bland visual approach. Meanwhile, when it comes to the action sequences, Yeon chooses quick cuts in close quarters, making the zombie-versus-human fights play out more or less like sub-Bourne fights. The undead themselves are shaped in the “fast-moving-zombie” mould you’ve seen in countless pictures before, with a couple of quirks that are interesting, even if they do also have the secondary purpose of being narratively convenient.
By the time the picture rattles into the final act of its overly long two-hour runtime, given the threadbare plot and lack of aesthetic inspiration, “Train To Busan” is mostly content to play to conventional thrills. This means inflating the role of Yong-suk (Eui-sung Kim), who abruptly shifts from generic corporate asshole to full-fledged villain, one who makes a lot of aggravatingly and mostly unbelievably dumb decisions that leave himself and others in peril, as he fights to ensure his own survival at any cost. He’s a tedious baddie whose recklessness mostly feels insipid rather than dangerous, all the more so given his almost complete lack of motivation.
At a moment when films and TV shows about the undead are plentiful, it’s not enough to just merely be passable, and even at its best, “Train To Busan” is just that. It doesn’t add anything significant to the zombie genre, nor has anything perceptive to say about humanity in the face of crisis. Sure, it lacks brains, and that’s the easy quip to make, but what “Train To Busan” truly needs, and disappointingly lacks, is heart. [C]