Busanhaeng [Train to Busan] (2016)

(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) By now, the zombie genre has been declared creatively dead so often that’s become a cliché to be amazed at how filmmakers are still finding new things to do with it. But there’s no underestimating creative ingeniousness, and so we end up with movies such as Busanhaeng, a South Korean zombie movie that manages to find one or two new things to say about the zombie apocalypse. The first of these is the South Korean setting—for most North American viewers, it’s a source of just-enough exoticism, while based in a recognizable first-world society. Much of the social and emotional cues are recognizable as-is, although the lack of guns does bring a further element of tension to the proceedings that, in an American setting, would be settled with far more expended rounds. (In fact, by the time guns show up late in Busanhaeng, they’re presented as direct treats to our surviving characters.)  The second and most distinctive feature of the movie is its immediate setting, aboard a train leaving a zombie-infested Seoul to a possibly-safe Busan, a cross-country trip just long enough to be dramatically interesting. The train becomes simultaneously a haven and a source of danger, as it moves through a countryside that is not safe, but contains contaminated cars that end up separating our protagonists. Most of the characters are generic, but the film is handled efficiently enough that it’s easy to get into even the most familiar situations. Gong Yoo is sympathetic enough as the lead, but Ma Dong-seok earns a lot of attention as a bruiser. Some of the later sequences are spectacular in depicting long sustained shots of zombies trying to outrun the characters in a train yard, but Busanhaeng is generally better in its first half as the situations haven’t yet resolved themselves to more familiar plot beats. Still, it’s a refreshing-enough take on a standard story, and it will reward viewers looking for something slightly different.

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