I’m not into zombies. They’re not my thing. Books, movies, TV shows with zombies—usually get a big yawn from me. Not my personal cup of tea.
There are exceptions, of course. I really like the book (though not the movie) World War Z. Probably one or two others.
So why did I watch the South Korean flick, Train to Busan? The last few years it has become my New Year’s Eve tradition to watch horror movies before the ball drops on Times Square. (Why do the expected and watch them on Halloween?) I was looking for my 2021 New Year’s Eve movie and decided to go with Train to Busan for two reasons: it has a very good reputation and it’s South Korean. South Korea has been putting out some amazing films and TV series the past few years.
I expected it to be a fun way to pass the time while sipping Cosmos before midnight, not that it would blow me away.
Reader, it totally blew me away.
This is not just a stellar example of the genre, it’s a great film, period. Like a lot of great speculative fiction, it’s not only entertaining and explores some very important themes, it’s downright prescient.
Directed by Sang-ho Yeon, the film stars Gong Yoo as Seok-woo, a hedge fund manager with custody of his young daughter Soo-an (Su-an Kim). He is laser focused on his career and is such a distracted father he gives his daughter the same gift on her birthday that he had given her previously for another occasion. Shamed by his mother, he agrees to take Soo-an to see her mother in Busan, a one-hour train ride from Seoul on the bullet train.
What could possibly go wrong?
Someone about to turn into a zombie boarding the train, of course.
The film hits a lot of the expected beats and tropes for the genre. The fact that it’s on a train hits the “disparate group of strangers who have to ride out a disaster together” trope. There are a bunch of teens on the train (baseball players and cheerleaders, no less), elderly people, elites in the front of the train, poorer folk in the back of the train (of course), and for some reason in these stories, there is always, always, always a pregnant woman (Yu-mi Jung), this one accompanied by her blue-collar husband (Ma Dong-seok).
People from different walks of life are forced to become allies, while those from the same walks of life end up turning against each other. And, of course, it has the popular horror trope of a child in danger.
The thing about Train to Busan is it takes all those familiar tropes and creates something—I don’t want to say different. Something that hits a lot harder than just passing scares and boos.
Seok-woo starts off as a highly unlikable protagonist, a selfish git who berates his daughter for giving up her seat to someone in need. “At a time like this, you only look out for yourself,” he tells Soo-an. Seok-woo is set up as part of the REASON why the plague is happening, a willing cog in the capitalist machine that profits off disaster, then does its best to deny any responsibility—even to the point of denying it exists.
In a different movie he might be the scientist who accidentally releases the plague. Here he’s just one of millions who enable it from down the corporate ladder. In other words, we’re all in some sense to blame.
As the disaster enfolds early on, social media on passengers’ phones blatantly shows zombie hordes while government officials tell people not to believe the “baseless rumors.” When leadership is desperately needed, those in charge fail utterly in a bid to keep the wheels from coming off so they can hold on to power. The movie has been compared favorably to the film Snowpiercer (directed by another South Korean, Bong Joon-ho) in the way the limited space of the story—a train—is broken down by class.
The zombie horde eventually becomes less terrifying than the selfish, entitled survivors who lock out other survivors without even the slightest guilt that they are condemning them to the zombie plague.
Oh, yeah, this movie hits really hard at this point in history.
The political underpinnings of the film are subtle and probably were not quite so obvious when it was first released, but that’s why I say it’s prescient. The movie’s set pieces are A-MA-ZING; as an action film it totally delivers, using the limited world of the train (and, at certain points, train stations) to advantage.
Yeon is a very economical director (my favorite kind) who can get to the point quickly with just a few carefully chosen shots. He also manages to avoid treacly sentimentality around the father/daughter story. The ending packs a real emotional punch.
The upshot of the film is that the “dog eat dog” philosophy will kill us all in the end, but by working together and looking out for each other we can put off our inevitable extinction. It says all this while still entertaining the hell out of us.