Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.
Zombie movies are popular and have been for years, but we’re getting better and better zombie movies these days. I find this fascinating. So often, a genre becomes tired and played out as more and more filmmakers dive in with their own versions of what quickly becomes standard and then cliché. Sure, there are plenty of bad zombie moves, but some filmmakers are exploring the ideas as real challenges and coming up with exciting films. Train to Busan (Busanhaeng in the Korean) is one of these films. However, the reason it is so interesting and worth seeing isn’t really about the ideas.
So let’s talk about that for a moment. A film like Warm Bodies took the genre and made a Romeo and Juliet-style romance out of zombies. Maggie was a contemplative film about family that just happened to have a zombie story attached to it. The Girl with All the Gifts, while technically not a zombie film, gives us a story from at least partially the point of view of the infected. Train to Busan does none of this. It is a straightforward zombie film that works for two reasons. First, it relies on the same speed of transmission of films like 28 Days Later. Second, it doesn’t stop.
This is the stuff I want to talk about with Train to Busan, mostly because there isn’t much of a plot. People on a train try to get from one city to Busan during a zombie outbreak. They are going to Busan because that city has effectively controlled the outbreak, so it is a safe zone. There are people who sacrifice themselves, moments of bravery, and also people who do anything to survive and moments of cowardice. In that respect, it’s pretty standard, and pretty standard for any disaster movie.
One of the clichés of zombie movies is that everyone who gets bitten early in the movie turns into a zombie, so most of those attacking our human characters have a bite or two out of them and are otherwise intact. One or two characters will be bitten and will slowly turn over the course of the film. By the end, anyone attacked by a zombie (for the most part) gets completely torn apart. That doesn’t happen in Train to Busan because of the way the film has the transmission of the virus (let’s assume it’s a virus because it always is) works.
Here, the transmission is so fast that the zombies, clearly flesh eaters, don’t have time to devour those they are attacking. The second someone dies, he or she turns. This is a lesson learned from 28 Days Later. It allows for the best of all worlds in the zombie universe. We can have a character bitten who can then survive for a time before turning, but it also means that the minute someone is covered in zombies, he or she will be up and a part of the horde the second he or she bleeds out.
Train to Busan also details exactly how the zombies hunt their prey. It’s a combination of sight and sound, primarily sight. Several times during the course of the film, passengers on the train prevent attacks simply by hiding or, in one case, putting newspaper up on the glass door to prevent themselves from being seen. It’s smart, and it works.
As to the fact that Train to Busan never stops, it’s not even fair to say that it starts slow. We get a little bit of characterization. We are introduced to Seok-woo (Yoo Gong), a fund manager who is raising his daughter on his own after a divorce. He is constantly at work and has missed a singing performance from his daughter, Soo-an (Su-an Kim). To make this up to her, he promises to take her to Busan to see her mother the next day, which happens to be her birthday. So, they board the train, and literally while the train is pulling out of the station, the zombie plague hits the area, and a woman who has been bitten climbs on at the last minute, which is how the people on the train get infected.
If there is a downside here, it’s that we don’t get a great deal of characterization. Along with our father/daughter pair, we have burly fighter Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) and his pregnant wife Seong—yeong (Yu-mi Jung). There is a high school baseball team, of which only one is going to survive for any time (Woo-shik Choi as Yong-guk), along with his wannabee girlfriend Jin-hee (So-hee Ahn). A homeless man (Gwi-hwa Choi) is also on the train, as is a selfish CEO (Eui-sung Kim), who will prove to be our main villain. There’s also a pair of sisters (Soo-jung Ye and Myung-sin Park). But of most of these people, we learn little past the surface and their desire to survive.
And it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all, because Train to Busan does everything right in terms of the story it wants to tell. It works because it has incorporated all of the lessons that have worked from previous films of this nature. It takes the fast infection of 28 Days Later and has it make equally good sense in the context of the story. It avoids the “shoot them in the head” issue by putting us in a situation where there are no guns. It includes the swarming aspects of World War Z and does it effectively. And it is relentless.
Right now, there are two types of good zombie movies. Slow, contemplative looks at characters (Maggie, The Battery, The Girl with All the Gifts) and pure action/terror thrill rides. Train to Busan is the go-to exemplar of the second type.
Why to watch Train to Busan: A throwback to old school zombie movies amped up to an insane level.
Why not to watch: Are Koreans obsessed with trains? Between this and Snowpiercer, I think that might be true.