In rural South Korea, a farmer takes his livestock to market in his truck, but along the country road near the chemical plant he is stopped by officials in protective gear who inform him there has been a minor leak, but it is nothing to worry about. The farmer grumbles, then is allowed to go on his way, but as he drives his phone goes off and he is distracted trying to answer it, so does not see the deer ahead, and ploughs straight into it, killing it. He gets out to take a look and see if there is any damage to his vehicle, then continues on his way - not noticing the deer's carcass lurch back onto its hooves and start looking around aggressively. There is something very dangerous that has emerged from that chemical plant...
Zombie movies were ten a penny by the stage that Train to Busan was released, so much so that even the diehard fans were beginning to tire of the concept, then along came this effort that against the odds breathed new life into the shambling corpses, not through conjuring up some ingenious twist, but by returning to the basics and delivering them with a flair unseen for some time, especially in the Western undead flicks. Writer and director Yeon Sang-ho had started his career as an animator, and indeed had made an anime prequel to this called Seoul Station the same year, so his instincts were to keep the pace up and deliver a well-rounded experience which ranged from visceral action to tear-stained sentimentality.
After all, it should be sad when the characters die, the ones you get to like at any rate, and Yeon was ruthless in bumping them off to the extent that you had no idea who was going next, never mind who might actually make it to the end of the story. Although a tight ensemble piece, we were asked to invest in the plight of a rather cold, but harassed, fund manager, Woo Seok (Gong Yoo), who is responsible for hiring and sacking of which he has inured himself against the implications for those he is holding the jobs of in the balance. We meet him as he is preparing to take a particularly unlovely business decision, and one which you get the impression will have terrible consequences on his soul, therefore it is up to his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-an) to try and reach out to whatever humanity remains in him.
Easier said than done when he is in the process of divorcing his wife, who has already moved to a different city to get away from him and hopes to get custody of their child, and Soo-an wants to spend her birthday with her mother which puts him in a difficult position. But he still has a few vestiges of decency in him, so after a blunder getting her the same present he got her last year, he agrees to escort her to Busan where her mother is waiting, reluctant to allow the little girl to travel alone. What happens next will place them both in peril, yet also save their relationship, assuming they survive, for as the train pulls out of Seoul Station an injured young woman manages to board it, and promptly transforms into a zombie, albeit not one of the shuffling variety, she's more the fast breed which race after their victims.
There's a sense that the zombies here do not want to eat human flesh especially, though they will if necessary, what they are doing instead is spreading the infection they carry through a savage bite, thus ensuring the survival of the virus if not the human race. All over the country reports are coming in about riots erupting in the major cities, and one erupts on the train as well when the infection is unleashed like a virulent and speedily-acting strain of rabies, which places the uninfected trying to escape down the carriages to the front of the train while the bloodthirsty maniacs are held off because in their state they have forgotten how doors work. Yeon amassed a small but excellent group of performances for his battlers against the menace, most notably among them Ma Dong-seok (terrific) and Jung Yu-mi as a couple expecting their first baby, endearingly the most humane of the characters aside from Soo-an and wakening the nobility of treating others well in Woo and creating a hero against odds - a compassion-free businessman (Kim Eui-sung) illustrates the bastard he could very well become if he is not careful. Moral, exciting, funny, tragic: there was a lot to take in throughout this sleek and accomplished horror, a real gem.
[There's a making of featurette and a preview of Seoul Station on Studio Canal's fine-looking Blu-ray.]