Train to Busan (2016)
TV-MA for over-the-top scary zombie violence coupled with human-on-human violence. The grotesque factor is pretty palpable with Train to Busan, mainly because of the weird contortion stuff that the zombies do once reanimated in this movie. A lot of people die horrible horrible deaths, often by being trampled or eaten. There's no way around the fact that the film is insanely violent, but there is also is some pretty mild language in the film as well.
DIRECTOR: Sang-ho Yeon
I think my first year teaching my film class, one of my exchange students really recommended this movie. He was obsessed with it. I don't know what it was about a few years ago, but I wasn't exactly itching to watch another zombie film. It was probably because I was neck-deep in two separate The Walking Dead shows and I just was kind of getting over zombies. But we're cable cutters now, so I haven't seen anything zombie for about a year. (I just realized that we cut cable just in time for Covid.) When I saw that Train to Busan was on Netflix, I knew that I had no excuse to not see it. Part of me was actually low-key excited to watch the movie. Now that I've seen it, I actually can say that my student was right. Train to Busan pulls off what a lot of zombie movies fail to do.
The zombie film subgenre is a bit bloated. We can probably all agree on that, right? Like, if you are a die-hard, ride-or-die zombie fan, there's plenty of content out there for you to watch. A lot of it is probably pretty rough, but the content actually exists. So what is it that makes a zombie film really worth watching? Now, I have not seen the sequel to Train to Busan, but I watched the trailer for it. It didn't really grab my attention. Really, a lot of stuff reads like the trailer for Peninsula, so I'm really trying to rack my brain to figure out what it is about Train to Busan that knocks my socks off so much. And, because if I'm honest, Train to Busan just mixes the zombie formula with a healthy dose of Snakes on a Plane.
It's not to say that bad zombie movies or Snakes on a Plane aren't watchable. I really enjoyed Snakes on a Plane when I saw in the theater. There's a lot of pleasure to be grabbed from ironically watching a movie. This is not that. Train to Busan mixes prestige filmmaking techniques with a fun premise to create a film that really works on all levels. I'm a little worried that, in my breakdown, I'm going to be just talking about the greater zombie allegory. Zombies tend to be really scathing criticisms about civilization and culture. From a narrative perspective, Train to Busan doesn't open any new doors. The protagonist of the piece is the character we've seen in every action movie. He's the dad who has put work as a priority in front of his family. Through the course of the film, he builds a relationship with his daughter, who finds him to be aloof and the two waddle their way through the apocalypse together. SPOILER: Because he's a jerk at the beginning of the movie who is pretty self-involved, his redemption arc needs his death, so all of that plays out.
And, like any zombie movie worth its salt, the real villains can't be the zombies. That's why The Walking Dead is interesting. The zombies are part of the setting. They are an excuse to force our heroes to never be comfortable. If you are standing still, you are dead. The real villains will always be people of power. In the case of Train to Busan, it's a wealthy CEO who wants to protect his own life at all costs. I would like to say that the actor that they got for this role kills (pun intended). He's so good as the hateable villain that his eventual dispatch is all the more satisfying when it finally happens. He's the guy who typically overreacts to threats, claiming that anyone who is not part of the guaranteed safe group is clearly a zombie. He inadvertently saves the heroes of the movie by isolating them, but somehow manages to survive himself. It's nothing that we haven't seen before. But for some reason, in Train to Busan, it absolutely works wonders. I think it is because he's such a pathetic schlub from moment one. Instead of being a slicked-back hair tycoon, there's always something really pathetic about the rich guy in this movie. He really screams that he's going to be the jerk in the whole thing, so when he continually escalates his obsession with safety, he comes across as a lunatic. It's that gradual build up that does it. We can see where he abandons the pretense of having a moral code and just does darker and darker things. Every time I think I'm through hating that guy, he does something else really worse than what led up to that moment previously.
Maybe I liked that Train to Busan wasn't afraid to get rid of its most likable characters. I mean, a lot of the characters die in this movie. There's a shot towards the end of the movie where all of the trains are at the station and they're all packed to the brim with zombies. (I love in that scenario, a zombie snuck onto every train, eventually infecting everyone.) We think that the train we're following, which I'll lovingly refer to as "our train", is for some reason special. But after the devastation that occurs throughout the cast, we just realize that our Train to Busan isn't special at all. We get two survivors, which I guess makes it kind of unique. But really, the people that we treated like Daryl from The Walking Dead aren't all that special. Cool, I'm glad we liked those characters. But when they died, it made the movie actually pretty heartbreaking. I put that image of the older lady for today's post because that scene is great. We adore her and just watching her exact vengeance on the greedy passengers is perfectly choice.
But there is one moment I would have changed. The movie runs about a minute-and-a-half too long. There's a moment where the pregnant woman and the child (who should have their own adventures where the child has to deliver a baby), walk into a dark tunnel. We don't know what is on the other side of that tunnel. It's a little bit of Schroedinger's Tunnel because on the other side is either the promised safety or the tunnel is just ravaged by zombies. When we have the tease about the gun and it doesn't go off, it is actually a Chekhov's gun. Don't tease us with the gun to create one last suspenseful moment. It doesn't work. Relating this to the OG zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, Romero followed through with that shot, murdering the protagonist in cold blood accidentally or "accidentally". That scene doesn't work as well as it should.
But Train to Busan is better than it has any right to be. Considering that we've been overrun by zombie movies, much like zombies tearing their way through a train terminal, the movie works. While I'm not really a fan of running zombies like Simon Pegg talks about, there is a real threat throughout the film of overwhelming masses of quickly moving terrors. This is the kind of zombie apocalypse that we couldn't crawl back from. But it still tells a great story.
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