I will admit a degree of ignorance when I went into this movie. I have seen some Korean films, but overall I could hardly call myself knowledgeable about them. Friends with more knowledge of Korean films highly recommended this to me and used the phrase “not a typical zombie film” to describe it. This was enough to peak my interest, and without giving too much away I was not disappointed.
Train to Busan follows a man who is taking his daughter to Busan. While they are on the train a zombie outbreak takes over and overwhelms the passengers. What unfolds is a rather heavy story. It juggles action, suspense, and character development, never letting one ball falter too much.
It is worth noting that there are some aspects of this film that American fans might not exactly get. It deals heavily in the idea of the “working man” vs “the regular guy” to an extent that American audiences aren’t totally used to. There are other subtle things that could fly over the heads of many viewers. Yet the movie is not out of the realm of what American audiences can relate to. I found myself sometimes glancing at my husband (who has far more knowledge of Korean culture due to his former job in the military), but for the most part I felt I could piece things together. The standard “roles” of zombie films are slightly played with, but there were more similarities than differences.
It is also worth mentioning that this movie employees a technique that I have mixed feelings about. To build suspense the movie has pockets where everything is high stress and high stakes. Those moments are nearly impossible to just breeze through because you know that someone is not going to make it out and something is meant to go wrong. It can be effective when used right, and I think this movie does just that. It’s hard to watch those moments without feeling a degree of anxiety, but then they relax into more story driven moments. There is not an overall feeling of suspense (which I generally look for in horror films), but instead just stressful moments. As I mentioned I have mixed feelings about using this in horror films because it can so easily go wrong. Train to Busan manages to keep it’s faltering to a minimum. It paces the movie in such a way that there is a degree of flow between one high stress situation to the next, there are hiccups, but it’s solid overall. In the end it’s not the scariest movie I have ever seen, but it is effective.
Now that we’ve cleared the way for what I might complain about, the main thing movie does right is character development. The story of the main character and those around him develops beautifully and in a way unexpected for a horror movie. The characters in this truly make it shine. Other than your standard “zombie movie bad guy” no ones seems to fill just one role. The players are diverse, they show different emotions, and they develop in compelling ways. I found myself especially heart broken with each person that dropped off because no one felt like dead weight. I can probably count the number of horror films that have made me cry on both hands, and this movie is one without a doubt.
It also plays with the space of the setting well. While they aren’t confined to the train from start to finish the movie never feels trapped by that setting. The moments they are off the train require high action to make them as compelling as dealing with the naturally claustrophobic setting. Perhaps the best time in the entire film is watching our heroes just find a way to push froward from car to car with the limited space and resources they have. I can’t honestly compare it to anything else I have seen, and it’s done so well I found myself unable to look away. The ability to take what seems like a limited space and using it to the fullest extent is a great example of good film making.
On that note, the film also managed to present a new context for the zombie film. It’s easy enough to say I would do ___ if the outbreak happened, and many zombie flicks follow those ideas. Train to Busan does not consider the “normal” circumstances for this scenario. These characters have no real options or choices. They are trapped on a train with zombies, going into stations with more zombies. All plans of I would go here, or I would do that are turned on their head. It’s not debating if they used the mall correctly, or if going to a bar is the right call, instead it’s something unexpected and unpredictable. The characters have next to no control over their circumstances and must survive in them how they are, instead of find a way to get into the position they want. It’s brilliant and it appealed to me more than I could have predicted.
All in all I found this a refreshing take on the zombie genre. It’s far from the perfect film. It suffers from moments that were too much, more than a little predictability, and a few pacing hiccups (while balancing highs and lows). Yet, I find this the most refreshing and compelling zombie flick that I have seen in a long time. In a world that is threatening to over do the genre, Train to Busan reminds us there is still something great to be found. It managed to scare me, pull at my heart strings, make me angry, and as mentioned make me cry. For all it’s problems at the end of the day I was so thoroughly happy to have gone along for the ride.
If you are a fan of zombie flicks you need to put this on your watch list. If the zombie flick seems played out to you this might actually make you fall in love again. I can safely say after this I am desperate to see what else Korea is doing with the horror genre overall.