Train to Busan

Review by Mike Finkelstein

Detractors of zombies films with say, "what more is there to do with zombies? They're slow, they're boring, and people always just hide from the. The only reason people die in this outbreak is because they're stupid." That of course misses the point that zombies are suppose to act as catalysts for our own introspection. Zombies are monsters but the real monsters in zombie films are the human characters that can't get along.

And as far as the people that think there's nothing else you can do with zombies, you need look no further than Train to Busan, the South Korean horror flick that movies the zombie outbreak across the pond. Train puts a distinctly Korean spin on the story, not only setting it in Korean cities, with Korean characters, but also by using the zombies to comment of facets of Korean life. The monsters are still really the humans, and through the lens of this movie the directors comment on the expectations within Korean society and how, deep down, it's making the citizens less compassionate and less human.

The film focuses on Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a fund manager who spends all of his waking hours working. His marriage is on the rocks because he'd never pay attention to his wife, and his daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an) wants to go live with her mother because her dad is always absent. He tries, a little, getting her a WiiU for her birthday, only to learn he'd already gotten her one the previous year. After that, the girl demands a train ride to Busan so she can be with her mother for her birthday.

Not really comfortable letting Su-an ride the train on her own, Seok-woo gets two tickets for the train while taking the morning off from his job. But as he rides the train to Busan news reports come out detailing a sudden outbreak across Korean. This outbreak isn't just out in the cities, either, but also on the train. As more and more people get bitten the survivors have to find a way to fend off the infected while hoping that the next train stop will lead them to safety. Can Seok-woo protect Su-an? Can he be the father he needs to be? Maybe in the outbreak he can find a way to rise to the occasion.

Having watched a few Korean programs over the years (out of curiosity, and yes, they were dubbed), I had some expectations going into this film. There are certain cultural tropes in Korean shows and movies in particular that might seem odd to Western audiences. Key among those is the idea that shame and dishonor can condemn someone to death. It's not just like a Klingon, mind you, but the idea that because of something you've done, or that was done to you, your dishonor makes you more likely to die. That death can be noble, in its own way, but the death will occur. Now I'm not painting with a broad brush to say all their programming does this, but I've seen this theme (and elements like it enough) that the second our protagonist was introduced as a workaholic, absent father, I immediately expected him to die by film's end.

Without spoiling anything to much I will say that elements, like this, are certainly present in the storytelling of Train to Busan. The heroes aren't heroic and they regularly have to confront their own obligations and honor for the sake of not just their own lives but those around them. It's a storytelling choice that resonates strongly with the Korean culture (again having watched a few programs from that country, as well as talking to the few Korean people I know and getting their own take on the material). It's not a bad choice but, certainly, if you're expecting to get traditional Western ideas of heroes surviving an apocalypse, well, this will seem at least a little different.

Now, sure, in a zombie apocalypse the expectation is that everyone is going to die; that's how zombie films work. A bunch of people end up at a place, they all hole up for a while, and then either because of their own stupidity, or the evil of man, they get picked off one by one. That dynamic plays out here for the most part, although I'd say Train to Busan does lean much more heavily on the "evils of man" aspect. A number of deaths feel positively needless in this film, done so as to make a couple of specific people seem more evil in the context of the film.

What's interesting to me is how the business men in this film in particular are depicted as morally bankrupt, evil people. The outbreak is caused by corporate negligence (depicted at the start of the film), and then its business men on the train that go out of their way to be dicks. Without knowing more about the culture I can't say if this is a specific commentary on a specific business in particular, although considering Samsung makes up a legitimate 30% of the South Korean economy (seriously), it's hard not to read at least a little subtext into how this pocket of Korean civilization on a government train is slowly destroyed by big business.

But even if all of that goes over your head and you don't feel the cultural resonance with the story, the zombie action is still great. This is a film absolutely loaded with great zombie scares and kill, and the action itself clearly was inspired by Snowpiercer, another film set mostly on a train. One can also draw a parallel between the stories of haves and have-nots in that film (filmed by another South Korean director) and Train to Busan. And considering how prevalent train travel is in Asian countries, a sign of their growing wealth and success, you can see why genre fare from that country is getting set on locomotives. It's great action, and good story, on a fast moving train.

I'd say that Train to Busan is a film that works on multiple levels. If you're Korean then the story is likely going to hit home for you. If you're a dumb Westerner (like myself) then at least the action is going to carry the day. Whatever the case, though, Train to Busan absolutely delivers on the principles of zombie storytelling as set down by the master, George Romero: use the monsters to tell a political story about the folly of man. It's hard to argue that this film does anything less.