Train to Busan (2016)

Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

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Train to Busan is an extremely entertaining zombie movie.  It’s like Snakes on a Plane meets Snowpiercer meets zombies.  While the movie starts off a little stale, setting up the characters and the obligatory failed father who needs to redeem himself, once the zombies show up the film kicks it up a notch.

The action is great and intense and not too showy.  There are a few thrilling sequences in which the zombies pour over each other like a singular mass or ants tunneling out of an anthill, and the movie gets creative in using the restraints set for itself inside the train.  There is even a good amount of humor as well as a juicy villain whom you are given ample reason to hate, and the movie grounds itself in a simple debate between self-protection and selflessness in the face of extreme danger.  This debate might be a little on the nose, but almost every decision is an extension of this idea, meaning the film feels lean and purposeful.

The best way to see this movie would be in a packed theater.  I saw it by myself at home, and I could imagine all the scenarios in which the audience would participate fully in the film, cheering and even booing the character you’re meant to detest.  Train to Busan isn’t trying to be anything other than a well-made action movie.  The cliches are forgivable because they’re designed to make you root for the characters in the way you’re meant to root for a classic film hero, and the same thing goes for the hate you’re meant to feel for the villain, a selfish prick of businessman who grows more and more unlikeable until he finally gets his due.  The movie manipulates you into feeling certain things but it’s okay because it works.  I don’t care about the cliches or some of the forced dialogue because I wanted to feel what the movie wanted me to feel.  The whole thing is a wild ride, and you just have to go with it (which isn’t hard to do).

At the end of the movie, though, there were surprisingly nuanced expressions of grief.  Because the movie presents itself as a familiar (but well-executed) action movie, I didn’t expect to care so much about the characters or their relationships, I just wanted to enjoy the action set pieces.  But the characters and actors do a great job of presenting the horror of this reality.  There are several slow motion shots as people lock eyes for the final time before one dies, and those are fine and particularly familiar from other movies, but in two specific scenes, the character deaths really hit hard.  In both situations, there is a high degree of innocence in one of the people involved.  In the first instance, it’s within the character who dies and in the latter it’s contained in the survivor.  The horror becomes a little more real, and it’s the only time the characters transcend the story and feel like more than character types (which I was okay with as well).

So yeah, just watch this movie, preferably with a group of friends.  It doesn’t try to do too much, it just does a fe things well.  Zombie movies (and shows) are still all the rage, I suppose, but this one feels like one of the better zombie movies I can remember seeing.  It never takes itself too seriously but neither does it take the horror too lightly.  Train to Busan plays with a range of ideas and emotions, making your viewing experience feel multi-dimensional.  It’s funny, sad, infuriating and thrilling.

 

The one issue you might have with the movie is the length.  It’s just under two hours, but it feels even longer.  I still highly recommend this movie, but it does have the issue of two many endings, and at a certain point they stop feeling like escalations of the previous plot point.

I’m trying to think of something specific in this movie to analyze.  What makes it more than just another action movie, or what’s the twist on other action movies?  The central idea is zombies on a train, which right away sounds incredibly engaging.  Snowpiercer, another movie set exclusively on a train, dealt with the idea of classism, and that isn’t something this movie approaches.  There are certainly characters of different economic backgrounds, and that comes into play (the ultimate villain is one of the most financially well-off characters), but the movie is never about the types of people in a given community.  Once the zombies attack, almost everyone is the same.  The teenage baseball players work alongside out hedge fund manager protagonist and a martial-arts trained soon to be father.  In the face of danger, everyone is reduced to just about nothing.  They (and we) are all the same in this new reality.  The trauma and new rules of the world allow for a reconstruction of who we are and who we want to be.  The danger is an opportunity, then, and that too is something a lot of post-apocalyptic or zombie movies discuss.  We are different people in civilization than we are in chaos.

One other detail that stood out was how the zombies operated.  Like most zombie stories, you get bit and you become a zombie.  But in other movies/shows, zombies operate mostly by smell.  In Train to Busan they track you based on sight and more specifically movement, as well as sound, secondarily.  When the train enters a tunnel, the zombies become distracted by the passing flashes of light, and this allows the characters to bypass them using wit rather than strength, which gets boring after a while if it’s the only way to fight back.

While most of the movie is set on a train, there is a turning point at which they get off the train only to walk into a trap, forcing them back on the train.  I forget exactly where in the movie this occurs, but it feels like it’s in between the end of act 1 and the midpoint.  This sequence serves to separate a few of the main characters from their loved ones (a daughter, a pregnant wife, a girlfriend), and it evolves the goal of the story: to find each other and not just survive the zombie attack.  If the goal were always to just survive, then it would get kind of boring.  We would at least become desensitized to the zombies.  So separating two main characters, while a familiar trope in disaster movies, works effectively here, forcing them to have a new objective.

In line with the idea of desensitization, the zombies never feel boring.  The most common way of heightening the zombie threat is to simply add more of them, and in doing so the movie makes the zombies a giant, almost abstract blanket of death.  They become even more inhuman as they inexplicably (but entertainingly) start working together.  In the final act of the movie, the zombies grab onto the departing train, and they all cling together like the flying rug from Aladdin.

Basically, even in dealing with cliches and movie tropes, Train to Busan is wildly entertaining.

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