Train to Busan Shows a Taste for Human Flesh and an Eye for Social Commentary
It’s World War Z on the Korean Express.
Zombies! Love ’em or hate ’em, movies about zombies are here to stay. The majority of them will continue to head straight to DVD as their budgets and degree of film-making talent involved demand, but once or twice a year one comes along that truly benefits from being seen on a bigger screen. Yeon Sang-ho’s live-action debut, Train to Busan, is one of those exceptions despite hitting more than a few bumps in its journey.
Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is a busy man doing important things at his job destined to make him both powerful and wealthy, but focusing on work leaves little time for his daughter, Su-an (Kim Soo-ahn, with a performance that once again suggests all child actors should train in South Korea). The girl is understandably lonely, and after he messes up her birthday Seok-woo is convinced to take his daughter to visit her mother, his ex-wife, in Busan. The pair board the train the next morning, but as they pull away from the station, just out of their view, the platform is overrun by what amount to zombies intent on chewing their way through the living.
One of the infected hopped on board, and the carnage is immediate. She attacks, the disease spreads within seconds, and soon passengers are fighting for their lives as their numbers dwindle in the face of the onslaught. Trapped on a moving train, Seok-woo, his daughter, and a handful of other survivors are about to have the worst day of their lives. For most of them it might also be their last.
The setup is simple, the action begins almost immediately, and while the focus is centered on the train and its occupants Yeon (who also wrote the film) ensures we see the scope of what’s happening around them. Landscape shots of Seoul and other, smaller cities and towns show civilization in collapse. News broadcasts on-board the train reveal to viewers and passengers alike the breadth and hopelessness of the infection’s reach. And yes, the word “zombie” is trending across their social media.
The zombie action here most closely resembles the likes of World War Z with the infected moving quickly, with deadly purpose, and occasionally brought to life in horde-form via CG. Sound design and sharp visuals lend an immediacy to their snapping teeth and contorting limbs, and as individuals or masses they never look less than threatening and frightful.
While the visuals are familiar what sets Yeon’s film apart are its competing themes of putting others first and the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. “At a time like this,” says Seok-woo to his daughter, “only watch out for yourself.” It’s a lesson she refuses to learn choosing instead to see others in need as people deserving of help, and instead it’s her father who’s forced to accept the error in his thinking. He’s a slow learner though as evidenced by his decision to leave his daughter behind three times too often. His re-education is supported by his daughter’s pleading, but it’s enforced through the actions of a fellow traveler, Sang Hwa (Ma Dong-seok). Oddly, Sang is the far more charismatic and engaging of the characters here, and as he fights to protect his pregnant wife it’s difficult not to wish he had been the focus.
Still, that contrast between doing good and paying the price for such efforts is a thought-provoking endeavor. It’s an impossible choice but one these characters are forced to make again and again through set-pieces that thrill with fast-paced action and nerve-wracking suspense. Their moral flip-side is present in the character of a businessman who literally throws people aside to save his own skin. He’s essentially a cartoon villain and a genre cliche, but he works as the counterpoint to little Su-an’s innocence.
The clash between self-sacrifice and self-preservation is complemented by observations on class and the corporate versus the social worlds. The passengers are fairly well divided – businessmen, regular folks, high school kids – but the ingrained respect for authority sees fearful passengers lining up behind the selfish, middle-aged man in a tie who rallies the crowd to do his bidding. It’s reminiscent of The Mist’s supermarket divide, sans religion of course, and it’s a reminder of the dangers in mob mentality. The media doesn’t escape Yeon’s critique either as the news reports are layered with misinformation presumably to maintain control and prevent panic but ultimately leading to more death.
Train to Busan is a follow-up, of sorts, to Yeon’s previous film, the animated Seoul Station, that explores the beginning of the infection and ends at its title locale. It’s Yeon’s third animated feature after the emotionally devastating King of Pigs and equally dramatic The Fake, but while his two zombie endeavors are far more entertainment-oriented his lean towards commentary on the human condition remains.
As much, if not more, of a disaster film than a zombie flick, Train to Busan is a flawed but fun ride both on and off the rails.