Director Yeon Sang-ho’s TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) has this Asian touch that its sum looks and tastes like chopseuy. It has a bit of this and that: the claustrophobic set of Bong Joon-ho’s SNOWPIERCER (2013); and the incredibly tiring fight scene in Park Chan-wook’s OLD BOY (2003). Funny, but it also reminds me of the politics sheltered in Frank Darabont’s THE MIST (2007). Don’t forget, too, that its monsters can build zombie-pyramids in matter of seconds same as in Mark Foster’s WORLD WAR Z (2013), as well as its father-daughter plot in a zombie world. Like J.J. Abram’s CLOVERFIELD (2008), this one also makes use of the “journey motif” in the center of an impending apocalypse.
But what makes it most satisfying is the heart in its core. In its narrative is an interestingly astonishing review of the human mind and how it reacts to cataclysmic circumstances. It’s characters draw out empathy from its audiences, and even goes deeper by examining our psyche’s instinctive force. Eventually, we laugh, cry and cheer, not knowing that on the screen we see ourselves – zombie or not.
TRAIN TO BUSAN is centered on a father-daughter relationship that is starting to go downhill. Seok grants his Soo-an’s wish to visit his mother with the hope to make it up with his daugther. He is trying to make amends, trying to rekindle something that is slowly vanishing. Outside the walls of the its immediate setting, the plot juxtaposes a zombie outbreak where people are dead but still living brainlessly. Thus, we see these two aspects parallel each other; while dead people try to live outside, a father inside a home (or on a train, for that matter) tries to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. Now you have a perfect setting for a zombie film.
Gong Yoo is Seok-woo, and he dashingly plays the films central character. Though much can be said about his lack of outward emotions, that could be his thing. After all, his character demands an unsympathetic persona in the first act, and as the story develops, Yoo slowly transforms into a compassionate father. Kim Su-an as the silently needy daughter is undeniably lovable. Her final payoff towards the film’s climax is enough to make you watch it all over again. And then we have Jung Yu-Mi (Sung Kyung) as the expectant wife to Sang-hwa played by the charming Ma Dong-seok. Worthy to mention, too, is Kim Ui-Seong’s villainous performance as Yong-Suk. At some point, I saw in him a glimpse of Peter Lorre’s hideous monstrosity in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), which makes me hate his character all the more.
The film, though a bit of any blockbuster movie you’ve come across, is still as enjoyable and extremely watchable. Gone are the days of midnight zombies, and mindless gores. Here, Sang-ho orchestrates a different take on the genre by focusing on the heart and the psyche of the living. Well, that’s also a bit of every zombie film you’ve seen. But he draws closer, centering on the dynamics of individual instincts to self-preserve. Notice how almost everything is set on daylight, diminishing anything that could add suspense. The film bends familiar achetypes by offering more danger in the light than in the dark. However, this does not neglect the film of its needed tension between the characters and their beasts.
If Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER is on rage, TRAIN TO BUSAN is on the id; and that is what makes this film quite groundbreaking. As Danny Boyle’s classic 2002 zombie film defines a monster’s mind as a raging frenzy, Sang-ho goes deeper with his monsters by tapping on Freud’s varying levels of consciousness. In the film, before some of the characters transform to an eccentric zombie, they pass through a mesmeric trance – pulling back past memories of childhood, regrets, hidden fears, even hate. Consider the lone teenage girl who made it to the train before the door closes. Sang-ho deliberately captured her saying, “sorry…I’m sorry…sorry.” Soek’s mother’s calls her son, “baby,” and made him promise to take care of Soo-an. Not long after that, she chokes on the other line and whispered, “bitch” before the line cuts off. Remember how before the disgusting Yong-suk gave in to the bite, recalls his mother and gives his home address in Busan like a lost little lad. Sang-ho, slowly builds these devices throughout his narrative for the ultimate payoff when Seok-woo finally surrenders to the virus. Here, Sang-ho lyrically recalls his central character’s happiest moment for his audiences: the birth of Su-an.
And this Freudian composite goes even beyond the dead. In TRAIN, we witness how the living dismisses social civilities in the midst of a hypothetical circumstance. The rich COO Yong-suk’s self-absorbed motivations influenced most of the film’s 2nd and 3rd acts. Seok-woo’s emotional detachment from his daughter and from the rest of the world continues on until the outbreak. We see passengers running blindly – thinking only of fear and survival. It is only through some of the film’s major characters like the heroic Sang-hwa, the pregnant Sung Kyung, the love-sick Jin-hee, the timid elder sister and Soo-an, does the film neutralize the emotionless dynamics of its narrative.
When you see TRAIN TO BUSAN, you see the growing social divide in an economically emerging country like Korea. We see in it a bit of ourselves, as well. Is this Sang-ho’s ultimate thesis? I think so. I think Sang-ho argues that a nation’s economic development brings along with it changes among its people, their cultures and scars even their humanity, and it is up to us, if we go along with the tide.
Having said that, this film becomes more than just a scare. Its core poses questions on who we really are and what (or who) are we willing to sacrifice when things start to fall apart. Yes, it’s a bit of almost everything we’ve seen in this generation of film, but it goes further by presenting unanticipated, yet arguably relevant themes.
In the end, those who survived are those who never even tried to fight nature. They survive because someone else fought and died for them. It is a sad truth; a poignant resolution, but that – I think is more than enough to drive home a point. It could have ended a bit happier, but the characters’ choices deliver an inevitable consequence we all have to accept in the end. This zombie film makes one realize how we – the living – can be a lot scarier than than the actual monsters themselves.
4.5 Stars out of 5