ICYMI: Train to Busan (2016)
As I mentioned previously, my wife’s research into zombies and zombie media means that I have seen a lot of zombie movies. At times, too many. But every once in a while, I discover a film that transcends the genre. A film that is more than just a zombie film or a horror film. A film that, despite the chaotic nature of the impending undead apocalypse, finds a way to give us sharply drawn and relatable characters that make us examine our own sense of humanity. 2016’s Train to Busan is definitely one of those films.
From writer-director Sang-ho Yeon comes a film that will put you through the ringer: viscerally, psychologically, and emotionally. The film tells the story of Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a divorced, workaholic father who is so thoughtless that he doesn’t realize he has bought his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an), the same Nintendo Wii two years in a row. When she demands to be taken home to her mother, he relents in the hopes of trying to mend their fragile relationship. On the way to the train, we see a few emergency vehicles that may a be sign of things to come.
Once they arrive at the station and board the train, director Yeon quickly establishes the cast of characters and their dynamics on this seemingly ordinary commuter rail trip. There’s the pair of elderly sisters, the nervous first-time father with his pregnant wife, the obnoxious businessman, and the high school baseball team which includes a tale of unrequited teenage love. Then we see a woman board who is not at all well. The train departs and the action starts when the aforementioned woman goes rabid and attacks a train conductor. Very quickly this movie turns into Snowpiercer meets 28 Days Later as the infection spreads quickly and the hopeful survivors try to navigate from train car to train car.
We learn that these brain-hungry minions haven’t figured out door handles and are mostly blind. The second part becomes vital in a tense sequence as we see healthy survivors try to navigate a train car full of thirsty zombies by utilizing pockets of darkness created by a series of tunnels. This is one of many exemplary sequences choreographed by director Yeon who also finds time to give us characters that we care about. In that regard, this is the film that World War Z should have been.
The key dynamic of the film is between Seok-woo and the soon-to-be dad mentioned earlier, Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma). We watch as the seemingly brutish Sang-hwa resents the distant Seok-woo, especially when he tries to make an early escape based on some inside info. Eventually, they find themselves fighting side by side (instead of against each other) as they both have a mutual desire and paternal instinct to protect their loved ones against insurmountable odds.
Train to Busan is both scary and involving, as well as surprisingly beautiful for a zombie film thanks to the crisp cinematography of Hyung-deok Lee. It finds ways to be fresh and original in examining the age old trope of the monsters that we are capable of becoming when fighting actual monsters. And it’s a reminder that while genres of film like horror and zombie can feel played out and repetitive, you need to be patient and keep an eye out for visionary films like this.