Zombies and Trains
Train To Busan is directed by Yeon Sang-ho and stars Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, and Ma Dong-seok.
It is rather impressive that Train To Busan, a film whose plot doesn't extend much beyond zombies attacking passengers on a train, works as well as it does. Director Yeon Sang-ho has crafted not just what is an exciting zombie thriller, but a zombie thriller that breathes life into several of its characters and deals an emotional gut punch, all while finding various ways to keep its plot moving forward. There is much more going on here than just zombies popping up in swarms and then people getting eaten to death left and right. Okay, there is a lot of that in this movie, but my point is, Train to Busan has structure: the zombie attacks are all part of a grand plan and not disjointed sequences that pop up at almost complete random. In addition, the human survivors that the film establishes over time each have a fleshed out reason for survival. To just say a character wants to live is not enough for us to get invested; what is the character living for, and is it something we can grab onto? Speaking of human survivors, it's also worth mentioning that Train to Busan doesn't leave out the sort of behaviors humans tend to exhibit in a time of crisis, and considering we are currently in a time of crisis in the real world, it makes watching this kind of movie right now a little more frightening.
The story follows fund manager Seok-woo (Yoo) and his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an). It is Su-an's birthday, and she wishes to spend the day with her mother, who lives in the city of Busan. Seok-woo and Su-an's mother are divorced, but Seok-woo decides to honor his daughter's wish. They board a train to Busan, but before it departs the station, a sickly young woman sneaks on-board. The woman quickly turns into a zombie and attacks a train attendant. Several other attendants and passengers are infected in the ensuing chaos. TV stations report that an epidemic is spreading throughout the country: people everywhere are turning into zombies and overwhelming entire cities. One city that has become an established safe-zone, however, is Busan. The conductor gets clearance to take the train to Busan, and Seok-woo must work with the other surviving train passengers to hold off the zombie hoard and make it to safety.
I don't quite understand the criticism that Train To Busan is, "Snowpiercer with zombies". While both films primarily take place on a train, there are vast differences in their respective executions. Snowpiercer wants to be a political allegory that makes commentary on humanity's class hierarchy, while Train To Busan is mostly a matter of survival. True, there is some social commentary in Train To Busan, but I am not going to try and make a compelling argument that the film is some sort of deep-think tank that would make films like 2001: A Space Odyssey blush. Snowpiercer wants to run with as many thought-provoking ideas as it can carry, while Train To Busan functions best as a work of entertainment.
- With the majority of the film taking place in a condensed setting, Yeon Sang-ho must take on the tall order of keeping the plot in motion and making sure the action never goes stale. Sang-ho accomplishes both with magnificent aplomb. Each zombie attack pushes the characters into a different, more challenging situation, and every time the characters must act, the stakes feel higher than before. Seok-woo's primary goal throughout the film is to protect his daughter, but as the number of survivors diminishes and the amount of useful resources dry up, Seok-woo eventually gets to the point where he can use almost nothing but his bare hands to keep Su-an safe. What also helps keep the plot moving is the survivors learning more and more about how the zombies behave, and how they use this newfound knowledge to navigate through the train cars. About midway through the film, it is discovered that the zombies do not react when the train goes through a dark tunnel. In addition, the zombies are drawn to noise. Seok-woo and a few others he teams up with take advantage of darkness and noise to either sneak past or fight against various zombie hoards.
Something that stands out about the film's action is that there is utterly no gun-play whatsoever. I don't even recall seeing a gun at any point during the film's sequences on the train. The closest thing to an actual weapon that the survivors use is a baseball bat, and baseball bats only get them so far. I think the primary reason the action works so well is the characters always seem to be in danger and are never thrust into illogical scenarios they could not possibly survive. Perhaps the better way to say it is that the action looks and feels realistic, and characters that survive manage to do so because they make smart, logical choices, not solely because they have plot armor. The musical score by Jang Young-gyu further adds to the adrenaline with a mixture of high-octane, fast-tempo tunes and ambient sounds to fully capture the extreme emotions that the characters are feeling. The action is never about how many zombies can come running after you at once or how much blood can be spilled; it's about putting the characters in as tense and horrifying a situation as possible and then finding ways to make that situation even more tense and horrifying.
- Train to Busan is extremely light when it comes to details surrounding the source of the zombie outbreak, and that's to the film's benefit. The horror movies that stand out are those that rely on atmosphere and ideas, not jump scares. This zombie outbreak is never about finding the source and stopping it from spreading around the world: it's about the characters being thrust into a situation they didn't expect nor want, and now they must find a way to adapt and survive. To pile on scientific facts and conspiracy theories would significantly reduce the sense of horror that permeates throughout the film, because then we would have a full understanding of the situation, and it would not be able to terrify us as much. Leaving an element of mystery ought to be encouraged under the right circumstances, and I think Yeon Sang-ho fully understood that explaining the reasoning behind the zombie outbreak belonged near the very bottom of this film's to-do list. The less you know, the scarier it will be.
- The only place I will criticize Train To Busan is its lack of depth with the social commentary it puts on the table. Seok-woo and the other survivors he befriends end up having to deal with not just the zombie hoards on the train; they also have to deal with another group of train survivors that show they only care about themselves. In this time of pandemic we're experiencing right now, it's as fascinating as it is disturbing to see the way people are going about either hoarding supplies or going about their life as if nothing is wrong. People will always be driven by their own self-interest, and even in the worst of times, self-interest is on full display. Now, obviously, Train To Busan could not have known about what's going on now with the coronavirus, but even so, the film still has a chance to capitalize on speaking about how certain human behaviors never change and how that lack of change has led to such extreme divides between certain groups of people around the world. Unfortunately, such commentary is left kind of dangling on the tree. You can see it hanging there, and it's a lovely thing to look at. The problem is that no one ever decides to pick it and make something wonderful out of its contents.
Zombie movies can make for great entertainment, but Train To Busan is more than great entertainment: it's a zombie film with brains and heart. The characters feel more than one-dimensional, the action is exhilarating, the scare factor is absolutely there, and, as the cherry on top, the movie might make you want to cry once or twice. The social commentary may be a tad lacking, but the fact that it even exists within the film is enough for it to still pass as a positive. Train To Busan's agenda is not in creating a zombie outbreak scenario and then slowly resolving it. The film is all about survival: the characters are in a situation they cannot fully explain and will never be able to fully explain. All that matters is getting to safety. If we're looking for an example of what a zombie apocalypse might really be like, I think Train To Busan might be one of the best examples. So much of the film feels quite relevant to what is happening now with the coronavirus (minus the actual zombies, of course), and for as long as this outbreak goes on, the smarter this film is going to look.
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