Train to Busan (2016)
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Starring: Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jung
After a brief resurgence a few years ago, zombie fiction in all its forms is starting to grow stale again, and some kind of new hook or angle is looking more and more necessary for ensuring the genre’s future. We tried putting them in a romantic comedy, and that didn’t work. We tried turning them into CGI ants, that definitely didn’t work. We tried mixing them with Jane Austen and….well, enough said there, really.
South Korean cinema (and TV) is meanwhile enjoying a surge of popularity, so maybe mixing the stagnating zombie genre with the fresh perspectives and voices of South Korean film will revitalize the former. We can hope, right? If Train to Busan is any indicator, that hope may be in vain. Train to Busan is a fine, serviceable example of the zombie outbreak genre that hits all the expected bases….and not much more. Aside from one or two small new additions to the formula, Train to Busan doesn’t bring enough to the table to be that interesting or original, and winds up as a well assembled but otherwise wrote entry in the genre.
Our protagonist is Seok-Woo, a divorced fund manager struggling to stay connected with his young daughter Su-an. To try and win favor with Su-an, Seok-Woo concedes to her birthday wish of going to see her mother in Busan, and the two board a train. Of course, all this happens just as a mostly unexplained outbreak of zombie-ism begins, with howling, contorting rage zombies causing havoc in the streets. Just before the train leaves, a newly infected woman stumbles onto the train, trapping Seok-Woo, his daughter and a gaggle of fellow travellers on board with a rapidly growing horde.
Train to Busan follows most of the story beats, characters and tropes that fans of the zombie genre are well used to seeing by this point. You have a small group of survivors trapped in a barricaded location, forced to contend with each other at the same time they beat back the zombies. Suddenly hurled into a life-or-death situation, some step up as heroes and leaders, while others show their true colours as self-serving cowards who’d sooner throw someone else into the blender to save their own skin. Our hero is caught between these two mindsets. His natural inclination is to put the safety of himself and his daughter above everything else, but his altruistic daughter would rather help others.
This forms the crux of the film’s social message or component: the push toward selflessness and altruism over self-interest. Which is a fine and noble idea, but it’s also a very simple, straightforward piece of morality. In the end, it boils down to one of the simplest moral underpinnings a story can have: don’t be a jerk. Like much of the movie, it’s simple, straightforward, un-nuanced and honestly kind of dull. There are all kinds of complex, morally ambiguous, thematically and ideologically rich things you can do with zombies as a storytelling device. Train to Busan would prefer to keep things as simple as possible.
Likewise, the film’s version of zombies is very familiar. In the 28 Days Later tradition, Train to Busan‘s zombies are really more rage-infected than rotting, ambulatory corpses. Gore and makeup effects are fairly minimal, and the zombies growl, shriek, run and jerk around in a way that’s frequently alarming but very rarely scary in a lasting way. The film does add one new element to the formula: the zombies of Train to Busan attack on sight, but if their line of sight between them and their intended prey is blocked by debris or low-light conditions, they immediately lose interest. This device leads to some of the most genuinely harrowing moments of the film, when the protagonists are force to carefully edge their way through train cars full of oblivious zombies while a tunnel casts everything in near-darkness. It’s an interesting device, just one the film only fully utilises a few times.
Otherwise, everything proceeds more or less how the seasoned zombie aficionado will expect. The evil jerk tries to turn the group against our central characters with flimsy logic that almost anyone could see through, the cast get picked off at an accelerated pace as we near the explosive climax, it’s all more or less the same kind of zombie movie plotting we’ve seen since Night of the Living Dead in 1968. In its opening 40 minutes or so, Train to Busan at least has a slow-burn atmosphere of impending doom, but once things get into full zombie outbreak mode, the film unfortunately just doesn’t offer anything that new or interesting.
If you aren’t that big on zombie movies and have only really seen a few of the essential classics, Train to Busan will probably offer you something relatively interesting. But old horror hats who’ve seen everything from A Little Bit Zombie to Zombiez will probably come out of Train to Busan a bit nonplussed. There’s by no means anything wrong with it, but it also doesn’t do anything so well as to be noteworthy, or bring any major new angles or innovations to shake up the rapidly stagnating formula.