Made Overseas: Train To Busan (2016)

Outside of an intro sequence, Yeon-Sang-ho’s Train To Busan doesn’t give its game away. An overworked funds manager named Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) lives in the city with his mother. His work has consumed him so much that he’s estranged from both his unseen wife and his daughter (Kim Su-An, who plays a character with the same name). He pays so little attention to Su-An that he accidentally gets her a Nintendo Wii, the same gift that he gave her for Children’s Day.

Su-An is miserable. In a development that should be familiar to anyone who’s watched 80’s family movies, her dad didn’t show up for her singing recital. (The footage of her losing her voice in the middle of a song is heart-breaking.  It is the second saddest rendition of “Aloha Oe” in the movie.) All she wants to do is leave and go see her mom in Busan by herself. Seok-Woo feels guilty. Although he’s needed at work (and he fields some work related phone calls when he’s technically supposed to be off hours), he takes some time off so he can accompany Su-An to see her mom.

And then… the zombies attack.

The intro sequence, by the way, is our traditional zombie movie opener indicating that that something is wrong. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, for example, quite famously began with a little girl lingering a little too long at the doorway of her parent’s bedroom. Train to Busan opens with a similarly chilling scene. A careless driver accidentally runs over a deer. He stops, checks out to see if there’s any damage, and then drives away. The camera pans over to the dead deer carcass, all mangled and covered in blood. And then… it stands up. It’s a ZOMBIE DEER!

The movie is similar to Dawn of the Dead in another respect, too: it uses the fast zombies. The whole trend may have started with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, but it seems that Snyder’s movie popularized it. There are a lot of hurt feelings on either side of the debate, with slow zombie vs. fast zombie being the “Kirk vs. Picard” debate of our day. Should fast zombies, or “zoombies” as critics call them, even be considered zombies? The original conception is of the living dead, shambling forth from open graves and craving for brains, and the “zoombies” are far too alive for that. Both types of zombies serve different allegories, with fast zombies standing in for the fear of fast-spreading contagious diseases like the Asiatic bird flu.

Train to Busan made the right choice in using the fast zombies, though. (And it is explicitly mentioned as an epidemic stemming from a biotech experiment gone wrong.) Beyond just the fact that fast zombies are the new hotness (or rather, it was until the great zombie market crash of the mid-2010’s), the choice is apt for the movie’s theme. A majority of this movie is taking place on a fast-moving train after all. There isn’t much of a threat when you can just leave the zombies in the dust at 280 mph.

Though, these kinds of zombies do tend to leave me with a lot of questions. Apparently these zombies live to bite another human being. Among the movie’s rules: if a zombie cannot immediately see a living human in front of them, they just turn into slow, shambling old-school zombies that just stand around like people waiting to get on a Disney ride. But when they get to lay their eyes on a human being, it’s like it’s a sale at Macy’s on Christmas. (They also don’t know how to open doors, which is kinda hilarious when someone just slides a door shut and realizes that don’t need to lock it.) When they do get a change to bite a living being, they immediately stop once their goal of zombiefying is complete. To which they just stand around again.

So what do they eat? It’s apparently not human flesh. Do they just waste away over the years, or was the one bite enough to keep them full and energized? How are they able to chase down people at full zombie speed when they eat so little? I mean, expending all that energy uses up a lot of calories. Of course, Train To Busan basically happens on the day of a zombie outbreak, so maybe the zombies are full of vim and vigor on day one but become gassed out and exhausted by day two. Perhaps that’s the true horror of becoming a zombie: the inability to go grocery shopping.

Seok-Woo and Su-An are trapped with an eclectic bunch of passengers that include a pair of elderly sisters, a bedraggled elderly man who barely escaped the initial zombie outbreak, the jerk COO of the train company, and a whole high school baseball team. It’s a given that not everyone’s going to survive. People are going to get bit. The amount of humans dwindle while the number of zombies grow. Paranoia begins spreading through the train as people begin enacting their own agenda… our hero, Seok-Woo, being one of them. He calls some of his contacts with tips on how to escape and doesn’t tell anyone about it. The theme that begins to emerge is one of how looking out for your own self-interests make it so that you’re not deserving of calling yourself a human being. It’s actually kinda surprising how, in one scene, you are actively rooting for a horde of zombies to chomp down on a bunch of people who’ve been acting like inhospitable jag-offs.

And yet… being altruistic isn’t going to save you from becoming zombie chow either. A lot of characters act very nobly, and it’s not enough to save them from becoming a zombie. (There are, in fact, characters who act greedily and get away with it from one scene to the next.) Simply putting other interests before your own isn’t going to necessarily save you or save others.

What does count, though, is how you act in the moment. My wife and I found ourselves rooting for Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a big sneering man who we first see being rude to Su-an. As the movie goes on, though, he reveals, moment by moment, his “never say die” attitude. In one scene, the group is separated from the train, and the main characters are tying to run toward an open door. At the last minute, Sang-hwa peels away from someone’s outstretched hand. He loses some time by grabbing a baton and riot shield and gets a straight up Captain America moment as he wallops some zombies coming from the opposite direction to save the rest of the group. It’s a straight up moment where you just wanted to cheer. Whatever his fate, Sang-hwa proved at that moment that he was, in fact, worthy to be a human being.

The internet is not bereft of hot takes about Train To Busan.  There’s discussion about its class struggle, fear of biological contamination, and low faith in the local government.  (There’s a news program that airs how there’s no cause for alarm when building are straight up exploding everywhere.  Zombies are dropping out of the skies from helicopters, even!)  However, there’s a reason that this was Korea’s number one movie in 2016, beating out powerhouses like Captain America: Civil War and Zootopia.  It’s because, like Dawn of the Dead, this isn’t really a horror movie.  It’s a really great action movie.

This is another advantage fast zombies have over their slower brothers: you get an adrenaline rush as the heroes try to outrun hordes or relentless monsters.  The movie establishes early how swiftly the zombies spread and multiply, and you’re always on your toes when someone makes a wrong movie.

Our heroes can be creeping around, avoiding zombies in the darkness successfully, and then … someone makes a bad step.  The zombies turn to the direction the noise comes from.  You are on the edge of your seat waiting for the moment that the zombies get wise to your position.

The action scenes are artfully done.  The train won’t stop moving, because any stop means that the zombies outside are catching up to them.  But then there are the zombies inside.  If they catch up to the passengers, there’s only one direction in which to move.  Typically the zombies are trapped behind the doors that separate the cars… but when those doors open, the ensuing zombie attack is like the floodgates opening to a mass for grasping arms and bared teeth.  One scene sees the zombies flying in the air, it seems, as people and objects scatter in the confines of a speeding train car.

Zombies have have petered out as a trend some time ago… but here’s a terrible secret.  Zombie movies?  They’re still kinda fun, especially when you establish rules that take great advantage of a novel location (e.g. zombies, but on a train!)  Train to Busan takes every advantage, hurling your from one location to the next and providing all new challenges.  What happens when a group gets trapped in a bathroom that is in a car filled with zombies?  Or what do you do when you make a stop a place that may or may not be safe?  Heck, is Busan, the coastal South Korean city that marks the train’s final destination, even safe?  It has zero slow moments of people holing up and waiting for help to come.  They need to help themselves now, because the zombies are coming fast-and-furious-like.

The best thing about this movie is that I had no idea who was going to make it in the end.   It could be a substantial number of them.  It could be none of them.  Two things specifically work in its favor.  The first: Korean movies are no stranger to ending things on a downer.   The second: that the zombie genre itself is nihilistic, with the granddaddy of them all (The Night of the Living Dead) ending with the rescuing army shooting the last survivor.  And as with that movie, it’s the humans for the most part that cause needless deaths and not the zombies.  Like Battle Royale, there were plenty of times where you just had to go, “You idiot!  We could’ve all survived.”

Train to Busan is available for streaming on Netflix.

Next: Chinese history has never been more explosive.  John Woo makes his return to directing with Red Cliff.