“Aloha oe, aloha oe, until we meet again…”
A lot of people are describing Train to Busan as 28 Days Later meets Snowpiercer, which I suppose is fair. The zombies most resemble the rage virus infected monsters of the first, and there is the train-based condemnation of classism as seen in the latter. It might look like just another zombie film, striking whilst the undead iron is hot, but Train to Busan has brains and plenty to say. And there’s a good chance it’ll make you cry like a baby.
We begin with a lowly farmer driving his truck when he hits a deer. Then the deer gets up from the dead with some gruesome bone-snapping and twisting sound effects. It’s eyes are milky white. Boom, titlecard, TRAIN TO BUSAN. It’s a very effective opening and guarantees that no matter how much zombie related entertainment you’ve been exposed to over the past few years, this one is offering something a little different. We are then introduced to our protagonist Seok-woo, a fund manager with little time for his personal life and daughter, Su-an. But that’s not because he doesn’t care about her, he’s just busy with his latest big deal and he knows it. After messing up her birthday present (in a believable out-of-touch father kind of way) his daughter’s only wish for her birthday is to go to see her mum in Busan. Seok-woo’s transformation from insular asshole to a genuinely compelling protagonist is done masterfully, and his scenes with Su-an are the highlight of the film. Su-an (Kim Su-an) is one of the best child characters of recent memory, she’s sweet and her and her father’s relationship feels real. This leads to one of the most emotional and affecting moments I’ve seen on screen this year, definitely within this genre, but saying anymore would give it away.
There is a lot of skill at building suspense on show in this film. The major threat is teased but not revealed until it explodes in a violent outbreak. Seok-woo is driving with Su-an to the train station and are cut off suddenly on the road by fire trucks and police cars, it’s startling and hints at what’s to come. There are news reports of riots and violence in the background. As the train is pulling out of the station something happens on the platform, but Su-an only glimpses it. We as an audience know the threat is real and we are waiting for the violence to erupt. As the film cuts back and forth between passengers the audience were almost leaning forward in anticipation. When it does happen and the first unfortunate victim is attacked the pace of the movie is very much like a runaway train, not slowing down until the very end.
The film makes a point of allowing us to get to know the key players before the outbreak starts. There is the shy guy and the cheerleader he secretly pines for, two eccentric older ladies, a stuck-up businessman, a pregnant lady and her gruff down-to-earth husband. At first glance it seems these characters are all painted in broad strokes, the usual zombie movie supporting players. But as the film progresses each one of these character’s is fleshed out incredibly well, and you will end up having a strong emotional reaction to everyone (even if it’s hatred for one particularly cruel character). The MVP of the film for me is Ma Dong-seok as Sang-hwa, the husband of a very pregnant wife. He is funny at first but when the film gets moving he is badass, punching his way through carriages full of the undead. The film may be set within a confined space but the characters are all larger than life, and frequently funny too.
When the action begins it is exhilarating and tense. It’s not spoiling a film of this kind to say that not everyone gets out alive. It’s watching these characters you’ve quickly come to care about narrowly escaping death, or not in some cases. The zombies can only see the survivors by sight, which leads to some unique sequences when the train is going through a tunnel or if someone is hiding. There is an especially tense moment as the passengers get off the train at a station they think is safe. As the truth is again slowly revealed you will not be able to breath, it’s one of the most nerve-wracking sequences I’ve seen recently. The zombies are some of the scariest I’ve seen, twisting and contorting into unnatural shapes as they begin to come alive. They barrel through the train killing everyone in their path. The extreme cleanliness of life in South Korea is juxtaposed nicely with the rapid creatures tearing the place apart. One thing you’ll be thinking afterwards however is ‘why can’t our rail system be as nice as South Korea’s?”
As with Snowpiercer, underneath the slick action the film is a morality tale at heart. The main commentary is on the class system in Korea, though I think it applies to most places. Tough working class heroes punch their way to the elite end of the train where snooty businessmen and old ladies are huddled for safety. And it’s these ordinary people who are most willing to risk their lives, or even sacrifice everything, to get others to safety. It’s the cruel businessman who dicks everyone over to get himself to safety. People will do unbelievable things when faced with overwhelming odds, be that courageous acts of bravery and self-sacrifice or extreme acts of cowardice. As well as this the film says a lot about family, and fatherhood in particular. It’s said at one point that when Su-an is older she will understand all the things her father has done for her, that those late nights at the office were for her. It’s a touching thought and one that makes the eventual tug at the heartstrings all the more bittersweet.
Train to Busan is not to be missed. It’s so much more than a zombie film, it’s one of the best representations of family and fatherhood I’ve ever seen. Wrap your arms in duct tape and bring some tissues.
Reviewed by Jack