Written and Directed by: Sang-ho Yeon
Starring: Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, and Yu-mi Jung
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I'll take you to mom no matter what."
I suppose I can’t open this review complaining about the oversaturation of zombies lately. If I’m not mistaken, I didn’t watch a single newly-released zombie movie in 2016, which provided a much-needed break from the undead—so much so that I was actively anticipating Train to Busan. Not that I needed much prodding to check out the latest critical darling out of South Korea since these things tend to work out pretty well. Surprisingly, though, what’s so striking about Train to Busan is how it’s not what you expect from South Korea, a country that usually churns out bleak, ultraviolent, sprawling revenge epics involving guys savaging each other with hammers and knives. On the other hand, Train to Busan is a relatively straightforward survival movie that’s more reminiscent of the strain of 70s disaster films, what with its (mostly) centralized location and a sizeable cast of hopeful survivors of this latest zombie apocalypse.
In this case, it feels more like an outbreak of infection, a la The Crazies or 28 Days Later. Some hints about its source are strewn throughout the film, but we’re largely just as bewildered as the characters who suddenly find themselves fighting off a horde of ravenous flesh-eaters. Among them is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a divorced fund manager and all-around screw-up of a dad. A total workaholic, he’s barely a presence in his daughter Soo-an’s (Kim Su-an) life—not only does he miss school functions, but he also sucks at birthday gifts. Fed up, Soo-an demands to be taken to stay with her mother in nearby Busan, which is only a train ride away. Unfortunately, said ride is promptly fucked when a mysterious passenger boards carrying a mysterious illness that begins to spread throughout the train, quickly resulting in a horde of zombies.
Generally speaking, Train to Busan is hardly a revolutionary entry in the zombie genre: many of its story beats, character arcs, and its dog-eat-dog themes are wholly familiar, if not totally requisite. Fellow survivors bicker before becoming unlikely allies, some will face the trauma of watching loved ones become infected, and others will be complete, sabotaging assholes willing to do anything to live. Save perhaps for its setting—which is still simply a riff on the typical claustrophobic zombie film settings—Train to Busan largely follows a well-worn blueprint. And yet, it somehow feels fresh, at least tonally speaking—in a world where our most popular zombie touchstone is an exercise in misery porn, it’s nice to see something that feels lighter, however so slightly.
I don’t mean to suggest Train to Busan is a laugh riot, but it’s clearly engineered the thrill and entertain in a way many recent zombie efforts aren’t. There’s a cleverness in the way it engages its premise that creates a perpetual intrigue: by confining itself to a train, the film essentially paints itself into a corner, leaving you wondering just how it can possibly be sustained for 2 hours. The script—which is a bit long, in keeping with the South Korean tradition, I guess—finds inventive ways to place the various characters in peril before scripting inventive ways out of it. Sometimes, it takes the blunt force approach of having the characters pummel their way through a zombie horde with baseball bats and other assorted implements. Other moments require a more stealthy approach, as the characters discover the undead are unable to see in the dark and take advantage of those fleeting moments when the train passes through tunnels to sneak around.
Despite boasting what should be a one-note premise, Train to Busan finds a nice mixture of suspense and rollicking action beats without falling prey to repetitiveness. There may be one too many sequences where the characters leave the train and re-board, but otherwise the momentum is fairly unrelenting, especially as the situation grows more grim with each stop, with characters passing around hearsay and rumors about the outbreak. At various points, the government seems complicit in the whole ordeal and has seemingly left the citizens to fend for themselves, an approach that predictably finds the folks here at odds with each other when one paranoid group creates their own quarantine zone by locking the others out.
But luckily, the film doesn’t dwell on this sort of pessimism, even though Seok-woo constantly insists to his daughter that they should only worry about themselves. She’ll have none of it though, as she grows quite attached to those around her: a young couple expecting a child, two elderly sisters, a homeless man, and a group of high school students. The first of these become her most constant companions when Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) first encounters her outside of a bathroom on board the train. He has a more devil-may-care attitude than the girl’s perpetually glum, serious-minded father, so the dynamic between them is expectedly frosty at first. Both constantly needle each other with insults, but these soon become more like nicknames once they come to know and like each other. It’s nice to see a zombie film where this type of arc unfolds instead of yet another one that insists we’ll all become total assholes under apocalyptic duress.
Don’t take this to mean Train to Busan isn’t without its fair share of gut-punches, though. Many of these characters are built up only to be cruelly taken away, and I don’t want to undersell the emotional heft that underpins the film. It might not wallow in misery, but it’s not without its devastating moments, no matter how predictable they may be. The inevitability of Seok-woo’s transformation from workaholic to selfless father couldn’t be even more obvious—which is exactly why you come to dread the absolutely heart-breaking ending here. Su-an’s performance here is especially wrenching in these climactic moments, as hear tears and agonized cries provide a sharp reminder that the zombie genre is typically at its best when it’s about this fragile humanity.
This is how Train to Busan ultimately resisters: not with outrageous violence or gore effects (the film is quite tame when it comes to explicit violence—I’m guessing it’d be a PG-13 here in the States), but with endearing characters whose bonds and relationships forge an emotional crux. By the end, there was no doubt: this one had me in its grips, especially when it began to tease a reprisal of the end of Night of the Living Dead, a dour denouement that’s become so iconic that it, too, is practically synonymous with the zombie genre. Playing off it here results in a tense final moment that confirms just how effective and impressive Train to Busan is: it might not be completely novel, but its commitment to crafting genuinely likeable characters almost feels like it.
Ultimately, the various influences converge into something that’s quite familiar—there’s a little bit of Romero, a little bit of that 70s disaster vibe, and maybe even a tinge of 28 Days Later for good measure. But what I couldn’t help but think throughout is that this is essentially just a better, tighter take on World War Z. Hell, it even does the mound of zombies effect more impressively, and in a smaller space to boot (and this isn’t even mentioning the smaller budget). Like that film, Train to Busan has been a monster at the box office, so much so that it’s landed on Hollywood’s radar and will be swiftly remade. Honestly, I can’t dismiss this out of principle—even though “zombies on a train” feels like a limiting concept, there’s a lot to be done (especially with the interpersonal dynamics and American politics) to remold it into something that won’t feel like too much of an empty retread—so long as they find a visionary filmmaker that wants to make it his or her own, of course.
In the meantime, let’s relish the fact that the zombie genre can still clearly thrive without having to resort to overly familiar tactics or peddling absolute misery to an exhausted audience.
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