Probably the most major commentary made by Korean and Hollywood film critics is that Train to Busan is not the first apocalypse train thriller to deliver an allegory of class rebellion and moral polarization. The first one was the biting Bong Joon Ho sci-fi dystopia thriller “Snowpiercer.” The big difference between the two is that Train to Busan casts a full lineup of South Korean actors and actresses without the Hollywood buzz and presents a train-based horror movie with a side helping of true Korean class warfare.
But if you ask Filipino film critics, the claim that this is the first ever Asian film to feature zombies that are all Asian is untrue. This honor has to go to the zombies in “Ang Panday” that starred Fernando Poe, Jr., with all the fake tissue paper and pancake syrup makeup.
Trailer Video Courtesy of YouTube:
Seriously, directed by one of South Korea’s great directors, Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan is now seen as a classic and class warfare zombie warfare echoing the works of George Romero and The Walking Dead. And it delivers a dervish form of moral lesson that many millennials today take for granted in the name of modernity and technology. For decades the basic premise of movies on the undead was the fear that these slow moving creatures will take over and eat your brains. Later the zombies moved faster and will eat more than just brains. In Train to Busan the enemy isn’t just the walking dead that want to eat you but also your fellow human beings that want kill you so they can survive. Better them than you that survive. Many critics say this is what World War Z should have portrayed – a realistic and nightmarish vision of the world based on humans rather than zombies truly destroying the world.
The basic premise of the film shows Seok-woo (portrayed by Gong Yoo), a workaholic, who spends very little time with his daughter Su-an (played by Kim Su-an) and they both still live with Seok-woo’s mother. To make up for his constant absence and often wrong timing with gifts, Seok-woo strikes up an agreement with Su-an to take a train trip to her mother’s house in Busan. This major city is 280 miles away but is only an hour’s train ride from Seoul. The train trip promises to be ordinary but filled with thematic beauty as well as the great natural views along the way. It’s the perfect journey for father and daughter to mend bridges. It’s also the perfect journey for the end of the world. And zombies.
Before father and daughter even get to their early-morning train ride, they both see a convoy of emergency vehicles headed into Seoul. When they get on the train, the film elegantly sets up the cast of characters, giving the movie goers scenes with the conductors, a pair of elderly sisters, a husband and his pregnant wife, an obnoxious businessman, and even a baseball team. A woman who’s clearly not well gets on the train just before it departs. Something disturbing and loud but generally unseen is also happening in the station above the platform. Shortly afterwards, the woman is biting into a conductor, and same conductor becomes a similarly mindless killing machine. These are zombies of the World War Z variety. They can move fast, they’re focused, and are violent. They replicate like a virus, turning whole cars of the train into dead-eyed flesh-eaters in a matter of seconds. They are rabid dogs. The only thing worse than a whole car filled with zombies is taking the LRT during evening rush hour.
The claustrophobic suspense of Train to Busan is amplified after a brilliantly staged sequence in a train station in which the surviving travelers learn that the entire country (and maybe the world) has turned zombie. But then they also discover that these zombies can’t turn or push door handles and are almost blind, so tunnels and lines of sight become essential. The human conflict also starts to heat up with characters who want to do anything to survive, and others who will do what it takes to save others. Early in the film, Seok-woo tells his daughter, “In a time like this, only watch out for yourself,” but later he realizes that this isn’t the advice we should live by or pass down to our children. The survivors of Train to Busan are only so lucky because of the sacrifice of others. Realistically, compared to other undead movies, the film captures how panic and greed can make monsters out of all of us without turning to zombies. However, it shows people who are also willing to overcome base instincts even in a time of crisis.
Probably the greatest moral lesson given by this zombie film is that a “no good deed goes unpunished” message of this magnitude seems like a valid way to knock some sense into movie goers guilty of the inhuman metaphorical sins seen in the movie. If not, perhaps the thesis will set in gradually into their minds, but with no antidote to counteract its power.
After the near-perfect suspenseful and thrilling first hour of Train to Busan, the film slows down a bit and makes a few stops with the chomping zombies that feel repetitive, but the journey recovers nicely for a memorable finale. While some people suggested better titles for the movie (these are like the know-it-alls shown in the movie), Train to Busan is the only appropriate title for this movie even if it doesn’t sound like a zombie movie. It doesn’t have to. Well, regardless, if it’s playing in your city and you’ve ever been entertained by a zombie movie, it’s hard to believe you wouldn’t be entertained by this one.