I’ve been in a zombie mood lately. Not sure if it’s because the zombie army in Thor: Ragnarok whetted my appetite, or because I’ve just been paying too much attention to the news. Whatever the reason, I felt it was high time to check out this Korean flick.
Train to Busan
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writers: Sang-ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park
Starring: Yoo Gong and Su-an Kim
Music by: Young-gyu Jang
Seok-woo is a recently-divorced businessman who’s too busy to spend much time with his young daughter, Su-an. She wants to visit her mother for her birthday, so he reluctantly agrees to take her on the long train ride from Seoul to Busan–partly to make up for missing her recital the day before. Unfortunately for everyone, the day they choose to board the train happens to be the same day the zombie apocalypse breaks out in Korea. Pretty soon a father-daughter jaunt across the country turns into a life-or-undeath race to what might be the only safe place left.
Out of the zombie movies I’ve seen (which, admittedly, is a relatively small number), this is easily one of the best. It’s got quiet suspense and explosive action. It’s got ghoulishly convincing zombie actors and even better regular actors (particularly the little girl who plays Su-an). Most importantly, it’s got all the moral dilemmas and emotional turmoil that really flesh out every decent tale of the living dead.
That being said, there were a few things that took me out of it a bit. This is the first Korean film I’ve seen, so this may have partly stemmed from my unfamiliarity with the style, but it felt a bit long to me, even at just under two hours. The pacing is very episodic: the survivors get through one intense action scene, get a minute to catch their breaths, and then go into a completely different intense action scene–usually in a different location, since the train is always moving. While there is certainly a dramatic climax, we don’t get the gradual build-up to that climax that I’m used to in movies, and I think that made this one seem longer than it was. Also, while the acting is good throughout and the script is well-written (as far as I can tell from the subtitles, anyway), the movie is not exactly subtle. A few of the emotional moments struck me as ever so slightly over the top.
But these are minor issues, which might have more to do with my expectations than the movie’s quality. Train to Busan is not trying to say anything super philosophical or revolutionise the zombie genre or anything like that–it’s just intended to be a fun, scary, emotional thrill ride. And it does that extremely well. One reason it works so well is that it really takes time to develop the characters. It can be hard for me to care about the people in a story like this, when I go in expecting most of them to be zombie food by the end. But here, long before things start getting bitey, the filmmakers give us a solid glimpse into the lives of our father-daughter duo, the short-tempered beefy guy, the pregnant mother, the two elderly sisters, the shy teenage baseball player, and his maybe-girlfriend. As a result, by the time the insanity hits, I’m invested in their stories and want them to survive.
The movie also avoids the common horror trap of making its characters stupid. The survivors we follow for most of the movie are constantly coming up with smart, creative ways to stay alive. Poor decision-making is at a minimum, except among characters who are clearly painted as evil and/or insane. But awesome zombie-killing is at a maximum, whether the weapons of choice are a baseball bat, a riot shield, or an entire freaking train. With fast zombies, rapid infection, and not a single gun in sight, the set-up really puts our heroes at a disadvantage, but they still manage to overcome obstacle after obstacle in spectacular fashion.
For me, the most important conflict in any good zombie story is not the heroes’ struggle to survive, but their struggle to retain their humanity. This movie is no exception. Every character who lives long enough reacts to the zombie apocalypse in a different way. Some show their true colours as selfish cowards, particularly one loathsome train attendant who causes most of the problems in the latter half of the movie. Others rise to the occasion and become heroes. At first, Seok-woo is only out to protect himself and his daughter, but as the film goes on, he starts to realise the importance of helping others, even at great cost to himself. And thanks to the zombies, he finally gets the chance to prove himself as a father.
Overall, despite some minor issues I had with the pacing, I had a ton of fun with this movie. It’s an intense, emotional rollercoaster with lots of well-filmed action and a great cast of characters.
Also, I really miss train travel.