Another Look at ‘Train to Busan’

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Ellen Murray books a return ticket on Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan.

Combining the horror of flesh-eating monsters with the horrors of public transport, Train to Busan shows us that even the most tired tropes of the zombie genre can be raised from the dead and given new life. A flick with real heart and real tension, writer and director Sang-ho Yeon’s story works on two levels as a horror-action narrative framing a melodrama reflecting on the nature of humankind during times of crisis.

High-flying hedge-fund manager Seok-woo (Gong) agrees to take his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim), to visit his ex-wife in Busan for her birthday. They catch an early-morning train from Seoul along with the burly, but good-natured, Sang Hwa (Ma), his pregnant wife Sung Gyeong (Jeong), a high-school baseball team, a homeless man, two devoted elderly sisters, and a bully CEO. Unfortunately for everyone on board, a girl with a mysterious bite mark on her leg manages to sneak into a compartment at the last minute. No sooner than the train departs when the newly-zombified girl attacks a train attendant, and the chaos only escalates from there. Yeon utilises the limited space of the train well, enhancing the panic by creating a sense of claustrophobia. After all, how can the characters run away when there’s nowhere to run to? Soon half the train is occupied by zombies and the remaining passengers, unable to simply get off the train after word comes in that the infection has spread beyond the city, must band together to survive. This is met with resistance by some, in particular Seok-woo, who adopt an ‘every man for himself’ attitude, willing to sacrifice others, infected or not, to ensure their own safety.

Therein lies the crux of the film. While the zombies pose a very tangible threat (what with flesh-eating, and all), the more abstract threat lies in their ability to undermine the foundations of society. All pretence of politeness and civility are abandoned so that only the most aggressive and the most selfish will survive. Thus, the zombies, though threatening, are not necessarily the villains of the film, as such a title suggests intent in their actions. For all their bloodlust, the film depicts them as mindless beings being driven by forces beyond their control. The true ‘villains’ of the film are the humans who consciously won’t help their fellow man. If the passengers on the train refuse to fight together then they are destined to fall individually. But how many of them will survive long enough to learn this painful lesson?

It is this compelling juxtaposition, plus the carefully crafted tension, that sets this film apart from its counterparts. Action sequences are executed to create maximum adrenaline rush and will have the audience gripping their armrests in anticipation throughout the film. Of course, it’s not a perfect film. Too often it seems characters’ actions are undertaken for plot convenience rather than as logical responses to the situation at hand. The rules set up for zombie transformations also get bent and broadened depending on the importance of the character that is bitten; a random background character will be turned in a matter of seconds, yet a main character will get a few minutes to exchange tearful goodbyes. These points don’t take away from the momentum of the film and can for the most part be overlooked, but more than a few people are bound to be bothered by these inconsistencies.

Overall, Train to Busan is a massively entertaining zombie apocalypse film that offers a more layered take on a genre that has become increasingly exploited in the name of cheap thrills. It’s zombies on a train and they’re choo-choo-chewing for you!… I’ll stop now.

 

In cinemas now

 

 

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