TRAIN TO BUSAN
Directed by Sang-ho Yeon
There’s an unwritten rule among reviewers that you never say a film’s the “best” at something. There’s simply too many factors to quantify it: when it was made, the budget and who it’s aimed at etc. But today I’m breaking this tradition by declaring Train to Busan the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen. And this isn’t because I don’t like the sub-genre much (even though I generally don’t). Korean director Sang-ho Yeon’s latest is a stand out regardless – hence it being my second pick at Fright Fest 2016. No matter how you feel about the undead, it’s a classic. Now, having already stormed the box office of its native country, the thrill-ride pulls up in the UK.
Seok-Woo (Yoo Gong) is a successful businessman, but also a douche who between deals misses his daughter’s (Soo-An Kim) recital, then buys the same birthday present as last year. No wonder she wants to spent it with her mum, who lives an hour away. However, her big day gets worse when a sick woman jumps on the same train and quickly tucks into a staff member’s neck. Before anyone can order an overpriced sandwich the gentle journey turns into a rollercoaster where the carriages fill up with an uncontainable, violent chaos. And unlike almost every other notable movie of its type, there’s not a sharpshooter in sight: just an array of business-people, teenagers, the elderly and a homeless guy trying to survive with their wits, some bats and a few rolls of tape.
What else distinguishes this film from the horde is its awesome scale. First we have the scale of the zombies, with each action sequence frantically paced. As the zombies spill out of windows, fill up corridors and fall over one-another it’s visually astonishing (and thankfully done with minimal CG). The pace can change so quickly too. For instance, a scene midway through, where the passengers step into a seemingly deserted station, promptly switches to an adrenaline-fused chase. Similarly, a bit where the survivors try to exploit an original weakness in their enemy goes from breath-taking tension to all out terror in seconds. In the hands of a lesser team it’d be disorienting, but here it’s immaculately organized chaos. While this maybe sounds a recipe for sheer popcorn entertainment it’s skilfully balanced by something else: the scale of devastation. While few films meet Train to Busan’s action quotient, even less have done in showing its impact. Entire cities are upturned, people grieve in a way they normally don’t when there’s zombies and on the corners of derelict streets you’ll find trampled toys or dummies.
Though Train to Busan subverts many of the usual tropes, one it conforms to is the zombie as a metaphor. From the greedily motivated reason for their creation, to the awe-inspiring way they scramble over each other to get what they want, the infected are a stand-in for selfishness. It’s this contagious mind-set that supplies much of the film’s drama, as the survivors struggle between keeping themselves alive or rescuing others. The result is an often emotionally taxing cinema experience where the limits of generosity and camaraderie are tested. Sure, sometimes in service to its message the script gets heavy handed – in particular I’m thinking of a melodramatic scene that sees a character too literally lose faith in humanity. But at its best it’s constantly moving and utterly gripping.
Slightly less gripping than the dilemma is the people in it. Sure, Seok-woo has an excellently realised arc (albeit a predictable one) and his unfolding bromance with sarcastic and strong father to be Sang-Hwa (a show stealing Ma Dong-Seok) is a joy to watch. A Mr Potter-like CEO (Eui-sung Kim) also makes for a pleasing foil, even if some of his dialogue borders on comically didactic. Yet there’s also an uncomfortably sexist motif about the men’s roles as stoic protectors to the weaker sex. Some of this subtext is stamped out by a focus on collectivism vs individualism – yet the inclusion of at least one kick ass woman would have been welcome. Without that their limited roles as cheerleaders, daughters and mothers in waiting are disappointing.
Still, it forces us to ask what sort of world future generations will grow up in. At first glance it’s a horrible one, where everyone out for themselves and a person’s value is determined by their bank balance and status. Yet it can also be a noble one. It’s a place lost children gain strength from the knowledge a parent would do anything to help. It’s also one where strangers come to care for them as if they were their own. In this other world good people never slam the door on someone in need and if there’s danger then, without thinking, they will risk their life for them. Against such a devastating backdrop it’s this optimism that makes Train to Busan so powerful – showing humanity at both its best and worst. It’s why it’s not only the best zombie movie I can think of, but the first that’s ever made me cry. Get on board.
Train to Busan is released on October 28th 2016.