South Korea’s Train to Busan exhibits some of the best tendencies of big-budgeted apocalyptic spectacles. Always operating on gut feeling the film never really functions logically, but that’s never really been a problem for movies like this. Train to Busan works on emotion alone and on that playing field, what else does a film need? Logic shouldn’t matter if plot and story feel right. Train to Busan is an exhilarating, albeit imperfect, high-stakes zombie film blending an ingeniously small-scale environment, surprisingly decent CGI, a well-worn but never unwelcome family drama and a disappointingly lowbrow message which, while never becoming transcendent, has nevertheless established perhaps the best zombie film since 28 Days Later (and the funnest one since 2004’s Dawn of the Dead).
The film (to some degree) even capitalizes on the type old-school melodrama jilted by Hollywood’s normal output of actioners, which have become so falsely-macho and thick-skinned they completely ignore one of the action genre’s most effectively useful dramatic tools: emotional vulnerability. Train to Busan works with a simple premise, a workaholic and his estranged daughter are caught in the midst of a zombie outbreak and, on board a moving train, must fend off against the infected on their way to a safe haven. The first ten minutes of the film, devoted to the father and daughter, play out like a sappy soap opera but its best moments of drama arrive in droves and in the form snarling, brain dead cannibals. It’s a strange revelation but Train to Busan proves to be more genuinely affectionate and empathetic when characters are under threat of an undead horde.
One of the few ironies inherent to some of the best zombie films are how it takes the utter devastation of humanity for its characters to become aware of the humanity within themselves. The film’s father, Seok-woo (played by Gong Yoo) follows a relatively predictable arch. He’s self-absorbed, inconsiderate and often unthinking, but through his own trials with others in the same predicament he finds a greater value in human life. In short, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but Train to Busan takes a unique, surprisingly intimate spin on that old cliché. Between bashing undead skulls Train to Busan dares to define what it means to be a father, a daughter, a husband, a friend in the present day. Along the way it also asks if the world were to go to hell today,which values would we keep and which ones would we throw away?
In her takedown of The Walking Dead, Emily Nussbaum states plainly, “if the [zombie] premise stays pure, no true happy ending is possible, and, before you’ve even had time to absorb that fact, everyone you loved will be dead or lost in grief forever.” Train to Busan almost moves too quickly for that kind of grief to really settle in. Being just under two-hours the film is brief and action-heavy, but it’s human moments that really come through, giving us that sense of levity in between bone-crunching violence, and when it needs to be, completely heartbreaking. My favourite among these moments involves three of the film’s central characters crammed in a bathroom following a tense sequence of close-quarter combat with the infected. It’s simple and playful, but it’s the inevitable tragedy that will corrupt this moment making these sparse, human moments so delicate, and the film as a zombie horror so effectively nihilistic.
Zombies have become an almost inescapable self-fulfilling prophecy, having taken over society, not infesting cities and neighbourhoods, but popular media—subcultures even exist purely to propagate the ridiculous idea that a zombie outbreak is eminent. Looking back almost half a century, George A. Romero, the man who arguably popularized the modern concept of “zombies”, created perhaps the most timeless expression of a society gone awry. The crucial fact these conspiracy theorists haven’t picked up on is that zombies, as we know them, were never meant to be a literal refection of society but a metaphorical one—what’s the metaphor, you ask. Take your pick, Dawn of the Dead was a satire on consumer culture, Shaun of the Dead a statement on the humdrum routine we find ourselves trapped in. The point is always the same. Zombies were always supposed to be an allegory on humankind, be it a darkly comic parody of hive-minded society or an even darker critique on tense socioeconomic conditions.
Train to Busan comes out guns-blazing, the majority of its run time devotes itself to riotous zombie-jammed action and pulsating thrills—but in the long tradition of zombie films, this one sinks its teeth deep into the human bits. In terms of acting, there isn’t a single sour note here. The standouts however are obvious. Kim Su-an as the daughter Su-an is a stellar child performance, she works through the tears and fear allowing us to see a more complex inner turmoil, making her performance not only believable but downright authentic. Ma Dong-seok as a bulky father-to-be provides us with a sturdy comedic relief, key to bridging each scene, but in his best moments delivers the film’s most dramatically intense material. The star of the film, Gong Yoo, proudly anchors the film with a repressed heartache and a soul emanating beyond the cardboard cutout he’s given.
Good zombie films familiarize us with the familiar and Train to Busan manages to accomplish that earnestly without the slightest bit of complexity, sarcasm or cycinicism. It proudly revels in its human moments before gritting its blood-drenched teeth at us.