‘Train to Busan’ is a zombie movie, but on a train

By Casey Campbell

Busy investment manager Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) has little time for his daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim), even on her birthday. Seok-woo is implored to bring his daughter to Busan, where his estranged wife resides. Boarding a train harboring an unfriendly guest in Seoul, the whole locomotive is plunged into a life or death struggle with a zombie outbreak.

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng in it’s native Korean) could have been great. It could have expanded on the oversaturated genre of zombie movies that have done little new since 2002. But, in the end, it spiraled into a generic tropey zombie movie that I’m sure you’ve seen before. I certainly have.

Yoo Gong, Dong-seok Ma, and Soo-an Kim in Train to Busan. Courtesy of Express

The unfortunate thing is that the first half was great. It had some exciting and (thankfully) easy to follow action which, uniquely, flowed through a train. That in and of itself was a neat idea, if executed well. The claustrophobic nature of being stuck on a moving train with a bunch of other freaked out people is horrifying alone, but the addition of zombies was a fresh idea for the genre.

After Seok-woo and Soo-an were hit with the zombie apocalypse, they met a motley crew of survivors. There was a baseball player and his cheerleader friend (girlfriend?), two elderly sisters, and a pregnant woman and her husband. Of the extraneous characters, the pregnant woman and especially her husband were the best. In fact, the husband Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) was the best character in general. The most dynamic of the bunch, Sang-hwa lends humor, levity, and best of all action. He actually does things! He incites many scenes, and I cannot thank him enough for that. Sang-hwa was a badass whose weapon of choice was his bare hands.

Yu-mi Jung and Dong-seok Ma in Train to Busan. Courtesy of Google Play.

This is the kind of movie that relies on idiotic characters that sit and stare at horrific scenes for tension. That’s not tension, that’s lazy writing. Lazy and infuriating writing. I’m sure that if I watched a zombie rip someone’s throat out, I wouldn’t lounge on the ground and watch. I’d probably get up and sprint as fast as I could in the opposite direction.

In straying from the generic zombie movie, if only for a short time, Train employed a gimmick in which the zombies only attack when they can clearly see a human. That means that if the train goes through a tunnel, the zombies lose contact with their prey, and they become almost docile (unless they hear a noise, then they pounce). To put it in context, Walking Dead zombies (walkers, meh) smell humans, these ones need to see them. The best scenes in the film were when this idea was explored and I thought it was a unique addition to an overblown genre.

Earlier I mentioned lazy writing, and this film is rife with it. Some horror movies employ subtlety when contextualizing ideas. It Follows masterfully played with the stigmas that come with sex and early adulthood, while never actually coming out and saying it directly. This movie decides, early on, to denounce stockholders and investors, calling them “bloodsuckers.” It’s a commentary on the capitalistic vampirism of money making, and delves into what such a leech would do if in this situation. (It also, briefly, makes you think the lead had something to do with the spread of the viral outbreak.) The film’s lack of subtlety becomes aggravated to the point of blatancy, and the line between cultural commentary and zombie horror became blurred.

Horror is a genre known for it’s social commentary, but there is a difference between subtle dialogue, and transparent activism. George A. Romero’s transcendent Night of the Living Dead (1968) created zombies as we know them now.  His zombie follow-up Dawn of the Dead (1978) turned in a story about a group of survivors hiding out in a local shopping mall. Guess where the mindless echelons of zombies flock? The local shopping mall. While not beating you over the head with its ideology, Dawn still had a few things to say about the state of the consumer capitalistic country at the time. Busan has plenty to say, and decides to hold the viewer’s hand rather than let them understand the underlying message.

Train to Busan does nothing new (bar the sight gimmick, which I really did enjoy) and came off as preachy. The characters (while never fleshed out) and the initial setup of the film were interesting, though neither really amounted to much. For a film that is receiving rave reviews, I was expecting something a bit more groundbreaking and less tropey.

Buy here: Train To Busan [Blu-ray]

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