Train to Busan is a 2016 apocalypse thriller about a zombie outbreak in South Korea that leaves a group of survivors on a train to try and make it to safety.
The zombie genre has on more than one occasion reinvented itself, taking the tropes and giving it a fresh spin, if not something at least a little different. There is always one constant though, the ragtag team of misfits who start the film in conflict then come together as a team if they want to live. Part of the allure of the cliché is its familiarity. There is a comfort in expectation, especially in horror, no matter the twists.
With good zombie movies, it’s never been about the zombies but rather those who outsmart them, or more accurately, the circumstances. Like a puzzle, it’s about connecting pieces in the middle of a labyrinth … while trying not to get eaten. With Train to Busan (Korean:부산행), like many of the sort, there’s a fair bit of social commentary involved, especially if you understand Korean society, as the film takes digs at class warfare and corporate greed and more, but it has plenty of surprises and makes the concept of turning into the collective much more meaningful.
That said, the film also plays on a few recent successes, including Marc Forster‘s 2013 World War Z and South Korea’s own Bong Joon-ho‘s Snowpiercer, it being perhaps the most obvious influence. Here, director Yeon Sang-ho doesn’t put his efforts so much into the zombies and their origin, though that does bare some significance, but rather the band of people caught on the train struggling to keep alive, and the relationships, good and bad, that come to define a whole number of people.
Certainly, the movie has its minor flaws, but if you know anything about Korean cinema (and recent tragedies), is rife with many of the standards from that culture that still give it tremendous international appeal, filled with outstanding visual effects and lots of top-notch action as it whittles down its cast, using the price of sacrifice as an important theme. It’s a fast-paced, thrilling piece of filmmaking that treats the genre with respect while delivering plenty of genuine frights. And like every movie, it has one great moment. Spoiler ahead.
The premise is fairly simple. In fact, add the word ‘zombie’ to the beginning of the title and you have it. As an (as yet) unexplained epidemic breaks out across the country, literally turning everyone into actual zombies, passengers on the KTX bullet train from Seoul to Busan are basically trapped as cars become loaded with undead while everywhere outside fill up with more. Horror turns to desperation as options run dry. News on smartphones make it clear that there are pockets of safety along the route, but can they make it?
We meet the cast, of whom all fit nicely into social stereotypes though not so heavy as to feel manipulative. The main lead is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a divorced fund manager who works far too hard to give his daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an) all she needs and more, even if he doesn’t see her as often as he’d like. She wants to go to Busan, on the other side of the country, to be with her mom, and the two are traveling together for that purpose.
There’s also Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a bulky working class man and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), along with a baseball team, a pair of elderly sisters, and a rich, selfish company man to round out most of the people heading south.
At this point, they are well away from Seoul, heading to the nearest big city, a place called Daejeon, about 45 minutes south of where they started. They are hearing reports that the Army is in control and are setting up quarantine locations, taking command of the train station.
After fending off the first wave of zombies and containing them in cars on either side, the group arrives at the platform in Daejeon, only to find no one there to greet them. The place is a ghost town.
Cautiously, they disembark and make their way down the abandoned boarding zone, heading up and into the large station. There is a feeling of unease about the place as the small band of passengers work their way toward the main level, under the impression the Army will be taking them in.
Using his connections, Seok-woo has called ahead and made a deal with another to avoid the military outpost and so he and Soo-an separate, though the little girl is unsure it’s the right thing.
Meanwhile, the others head over and down to the exits, where there are visible signs of conflict, including abandoned police shields and batons and plenty of smeared blood. Still, they press on, and as sunlight breaks from the open bays at the bottom of the escalator, they see a great stand of military men seemingly holding guard, awaiting their arrival. It’s a moment of release, a feeling that okay, they are safe for now.
But no. Turns out, the Army has all gone zombie, and with fresh flesh being served up like platters on a conveyor, they spin and attack, putting the exhausted passengers in a brand new fit of chaos.
The only scene in the movie after the carnage begins outside the train, aside from the final moments, this sequence is a sensational bit of action and horror that has barely a word spoken and yet speaks volumes about the characters, the situation, and the general plight of the world at hand.
As the massive swarm of green fatigue-wearing soldiers crush through the panicked crowd, it’s a showdown as the survivors fight their way back to the train, some making it, many not.
The moment is crucial in breaking expectations and setting up the ferocity of the zombies themselves, though more importantly, it establishes that everything from now on will be unreliable. With the Army lost, any hope of salvation must be made by those who make it back, and this scene allows that to happen, forcing those who would normally not mix to stand almost literally shoulder to shoulder if they want to live.
Yeon Sang-ho takes his time here, understanding well that the payoff is not as impactful as the setup, giving us long shots of the train pulling into the trap, the signs all there that this will be bad, but keeping it authentic as the confused passengers move together. More than once in the story, “lemmings” is made part of the dialogue, and we get a sense that a portion of the message is about group dynamics in crisis and tragedy, something Korea has had its fair share of, and we see the filmmakers make bold statements about the failures of government and militaries to protect. In fact, they become part of the problem.
The train is the haven, occupied by the turned, and yet serves as the larger metaphor of instability as the ranks dissolve under fear and mistrust of each other, naturally led by the corporate leader. Aboard the KTX, terrible choices are made and heartbreaking sacrifices leave the group in splinters, elevating Train to Busan above many in the genre, including World War Z, which was all monsters and no heart.
Zombie movies aren’t going anywhere soon, and while innovation in the genre isn’t a mainstay, every once in a while a film comes along that does something, if not different, at least from another angle. Train to Busan does just that, a brilliant film where a stop at Daejeon makes for a great cinematic moment.