Train to Busan (2016)
The horror genre has more than its fair share of bad movies. It’s the nature of the beast (no pun intended). Films of this type can be made quickly and cheaply but have the potential to make a tidy profit. Therefore, they attract not only burgeoning talent but those bereft of any as well. Furthermore, traditional formulas work, so any new innovative production is often followed by a wealth of copycats and knockoff films. To say that the genre is self-plagiarising is an understatement. Yet, from time to time, horror movies can surpass mainstream cinema with regard to social commentary, satire and intelligent adult narratives. Look no further than Dawn of the Dead, The Thing and The Descent if you want three solid examples. Horror is a versatile and malleable genre that can facilitate great stories and reflections upon the human condition.
Although Train to Busan starts with a very tried and tested premise, it quickly establishes itself as more than just a standard horror offering. The emphasis is upon characters with credible foibles and traits. The film presents us with an interesting overview of South Korean socio-economic culture. Class, etiquette and morality are all touched upon in the screenplay but organically, not clumsily. Nor are viewers bludgeoned with any obvious social messages. What the film does well is show us how humans deal with adversity and come to terms with extraordinary circumstances. Unlike so many US horror movies, the protagonists are not obnoxious and as the cast is inevitably culled over the course of the film, we genuinely mourn each loss. Another interesting cultural difference is how the disposal of zombies becomes more complex when firearms are not common place.
Like so many zombie movies, the most engaging scenes are those that happen as the emerging apocalypse unfolds. Despite living in a world surrounded by the media, it’s fascinating how we can remain oblivious while being immersed in it. Something else that Train to Busan does very well is accurately catalogue human reactions to the totally incongruous. Often passengers look on utterly dumfounded, as zombies bite into people’s neck. However, once the magnitude of the situation finally registers, the passengers are innovative as they seek to save themselves. Wet newspaper is stuck on the windows to obscure them. Cell phone ringtones are used to distract the undead.
There are obvious stylistic similarities between Train to Busan and World War Z. The fast moving, aggressive zombies that transform their prey in seconds are again seen in this film. However, director Yeon Sang-ho does more with his smaller budget, making his undead horde far more threatening than the boiling CGI-fest of Word War Z. The zombies in this instance go semi dormant when cut off from the light. They are predominantly attracted to sound and seem to have lost most of their higher reasoning abilities. A closed sliding door is enough to outwit them and they do not use tools or their environment to their advantage. Train to Busan although tense and atmospheric, is not excessively gory. There are blood spurts and the bone crunching zombie transformations are ghoulish but the film does not rely on the extremely grotesque. Tension stems from the viewers concern for the casts wellbeing.
Performances are universally good in Train to Busan, although it would be remiss of me not to single out Kim Su-an as Soo-an. This young actress acquits herself extremely well as the young daughter of work obsessed fund manager. The film takes several bleak turns during the course of its story and I was concerned that it may end in a downbeat manner, similar to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. However, the final resolution to the tale is poignant and certainly within the idiom of the proceeding one hundred minutes. Overall Train to Busan is an infinitely superior genre outing than most contemporary US mainstream horror films. It is engaging due to its international setting, moral integrity and cultural differences. Sadly, all these positive aspects will more than likely be lost when the US remake is released in 2018.