“While a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea, passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.” — IMDb
I’d been hearing crazy hype about Train to Busan — originally titled Busanhaeng and directed by Sang-ho Yeon, who had previously only worked on animated projects — for months if not years before I finally watched it. It certainly lived up to its promise to be a non-stop action thriller, and I was impressed both by the creepiness of the zombies themselves as well as the chaos they inspired, but so much of the movie left me feeling unsatisfied.
** SPOILERS! **
As I mentioned, the tension and action this movie delivers can’t be denied. The zombies are frenetic, twitching and jerking with horribly disconnected (and yet almost graceful) movements, pressing themselves up against the glass with blood dripping from every orifice. They don’t merely lurch around lazily — they are alerted to a victim and run as fast as they can straight at it, which ramps up the chaos considerably. They made great use of these facts and emphasized the horrifying nature of the creatures — in one scene, the camera seems to be mounted to a zombie itself, watching it as it barrels down the aisle of the train. Or when the passengers encounter a large group of military personnel from the back, but as soon as they turn and their identities are revealed they rush them with terrifying urgency. The overhead shot of the three survivors running for the train with a massive crowd of creatures chasing them was pretty awesome, too, and followed soon after by a few in that crowd grabbing onto the back of the train and trailing behind in a growing, moving tail. Yeon certainly knew how to keep his audience on the edge of their seat.
He also knew how to utilize the claustrophobic atmosphere of a train, and the added fear was powerful. I am always a fan of movies that limit their settings in such a way, not only because the knowledge of being stuck is terrifying on its own — particularly in this case, when their available space to survive is essentially shrinking as the zombies get closer — but because I think it takes a skilled director and cinematographer to really use those spaces creatively.
But for a movie like this to move past a simple action movie that happens to have a horror component — it has been jokingly referred to as “Snowpiercer, but with zombies” — you need to have a human connection, which I think it mostly failed at. You can’t avoid character stereotypes entirely, but you can avoid going down the completely cliche route of including almost all of them — we’ve got the distant father who is too consumed by work and the bottom line, the neglected child, the raunchy but tender husband, the pregnant woman, the lovestruck teenage girl, the teenage boy who finds his courage, the the greedy man who will do anything to survive, and they even threw in a dirty homeless guy with an ominous message to boot (who knew what was happening all along, IF ONLY WE HAD LISTENED!).
Again, stereotypes can’t be completely avoided — they exist for a reason — but there was literally the stock scene of the distant father watching his daughter’s recital on a video camera. The daughter at one point cries out, “you only care about yourself, that’s why mommy left!”. It just followed the emotional recipe a little too closely for the most part, making moments that should have been meaningful feel melodramatic and almost comical instead.
It held on to some zombie movie stereotypes a bit too tightly, too. The sweaty, twitching girl who runs onto the train at the last second, unnoticed despite her painfully obvious issues until it’s too late. The inconsistency with how quickly the zombies reanimate once bitten — in one earlier scene we see it happening in literal seconds, but when the pregnant woman’s husband gets bit, he has just enough time to hold off a horde of creatures and save the rest of the group before his eyes go all white and cloudy. The angry, greed-driven man who incites fear of “the other” in order to segregate the group and ensure his own survival.
Though I am almost willing to ignore ALL of that because I thought the near-ending was so well-done and gut-wrenching. The asshole guy who left several dead or transformed in his wake, begging for help, not realizing he was changing was pretty satisfying. The distant father sacrificing himself in order to save the pregnant woman and his daughter by throwing the man off the side of the train.
But really, the entire scene with his little girl — played by Kim Su-an, age 10 at the time, who was possibly the best actor in the entire film — was heart-rending. Her screaming crying, begging him not to go, as he said goodbye. His flashbacks to holding her as a baby as a wistful smile spreads across his face, despite his veins darkening in the midst of his transformation. And the view of his shadow as he swan dives off the back of the train, giving up his own life for his daughter’s. WHEW. If the rest of the movie had been even a fraction of that, it would have WRECKED me. Even the very last scene, of her singing “Aloha Oe” while tears streamed down her face, was intense. (Even though I am still torn about whether I wish they had ended it more darkly with the father’s dive, or kept it more upbeat with the last two being saved.)
Ultimately, I feel like it really found its way in the last 20 minutes or so, but the lack of more unique character development kept this one from being a standout for me. Though I am super curious to see the animated film Seoul Station that Yeon directed as a prequel to this!
Rating: 6/10 | Director: Sang-ho Yeon | Writer: Sang-ho Yeon, Joo-Suk Park | Music: Young-gyu Jang | Cinematography: Hyung-deok Lee | Starring: Yoo Gong, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma, Su-an Kim, Eui-sung Kim, Woo-sik Choi, Sohee