I, like many folks, have laundry list of guilty pleasures that I’m totally unapologetic for. One of my favorite things growing up, next to glam rock, was zombie flicks. I loved them, no bones about it. At first I was all about the shlock but in time I grew to realize something crucial: a good zombie film was never about the zombies. In those, the shambling undead were allegories for social commentary or catalysts for humanistic stories; and that just made me love them even more!
But somewhere along the line, the tables were turned and we, the ever ravenous force of pop culture, became the real monsters. And like that, cliché was left to spread unchecked, and the once fearsome arbiters of societal reflection became essentially pointless and rote.
But this infection never spread to our friends in the East; with the newly released ‘Train to Busan’ resurrecting my dormant love of this genre!
Now, whilst the plot here isn’t particularly ground breaking, what it does is quickly and effectively set up all the chess pieces for its grander narrative moves. The premise is essentially ‘Return of the Living Dead’ meets ‘Snakes on a Plane’ meets ‘World War Z’, but instead of coming off as a simple pastiche, ‘Train to Busan’ manages to feels new, exciting and socially relevant.
The film starts with workaholic hedge fund manager and essentially absentee father, Seok-woo, taking his young daughter, Soo-an, to visit his ex-wife in Busan aboard the titular train. It’s here we are introduced to our supporting cast, ranging from business men lamenting the good ol’ fascist Korea, to sweet old ladies and a couple of high school lovebirds. But as they are about to depart, a stumbling, ashen skinned woman boards the train and begins vomiting. However, the passengers and cabin crew couldn’t care less and are more alarmed and disgusted by a homeless man who’s managed to also sneak aboard; but we’ll return to that later.
It’s not long before the tease of an outbreak totally becomes one, and the action explodes in an exhilarating display which is only exemplified by the inherent claustrophobia of the train and fantastic cinematography.
Now, I know I said “zombies films aren’t about the zombies” but it would be amiss of me not to mention them here. The undead are a wonderful chimera of Eastern and Western horror tropes, combining to make something fresh and disturbing. They move in that contorted way that screams Japanese horror but then also exhibit the agility and ferociousness of those seen in ’28 Days Later’. Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before the survivors are outnumbered by the undead, but it’s here the cheeky film first begins to play with the established Hollywood formula.
Instead of our protagonist suddenly expressing the virtues of a hero, he actively rails against the genre conventions, clinging to his elitism and selfish tendencies, going as far as to close the door to safety in the face of a pregnant woman and her husband. It takes the innate innocence of his daughter and the bravery of another passenger to show him co-operation and altruism, as opposed to self-preservation, is the key to survival.
This theme alone is something that makes ‘Train to Busan’ stand out. Instead of rolling out the ‘people are the real monsters’ and the ‘doing what you must to survive’ motifs, it instead focuses on people becoming better, more caring versions of themselves in the face of tragedy and adversity. This combined with the scathing critique of classism, which decries the callousness inherent in our social hierarchy, means this is a zombie flick with something to say!
Thankfully these themes aren’t lost amongst an onslaught of action, with Seok-woo’s gradual transformation at the behest of the other survivors feeling organic and giving us time to emotionally connect with the eclectic cast. These scenes spent crafting genuine interactions and sentimental ties between the characters also results in the tension and unpredictable events of the narrative actually carrying an impactful gravitas. Who’d a thunk, hey?
Ultimately, ‘Train to Busan’ gives me a renewed hope for the future of a genre I thought all but decayed. Stellar acting, believable characters, jaw dropping set pieces, tension so thick you’d blunt your proverbial knife, and most importantly: Having SOMETHING to actually SAY as opposed to just filling the frame with gore. For that reason ‘Train to Busan’ scores a motif-laden bullet train out of five, catch it in select cinemas whilst you can.