Overview: When a zombie virus takes over Korea, a recently divorced father has to learn the meaning of moral propriety if he wants to keep his daughter safe. Next Entertainment World; 2016; Not Rated; 118 minutes.
Survival of the Jerkiest: At the core of every zombie text, there lies a central unspoken conflict: “Insidious self-interest vs. reckless altruism.” Put simply, “Do I escape and let this person die, or do I risk my own life to save another’s?” It’s a dilemma so potent that the video game developer Telltale recently created an adaptation of the TV show The Walking Dead in which making that choice was more or less the only thing the player did. But as far as cinema de undead goes, I’m not sure any film has ever foregrounded this moral conundrum quite so brazenly as Korea’s Train To Busan does. How front-and-center is it, you ask? Well, the film’s lead character is a fund-manager. “Leaving useless people behind” is his job!
His name is Seok Woo, and Train To Busan puts him on a high-speed KTX train with his estranged daughter (to paraphrase writer Nathan Rabin, fathers who miss recitals are the worst kind of human garbage) as they head south so that she can visit her mother – and his ex-wife. Luckily for Seok, the universe has provided a getaway plan. It just so happens to involve hordes of reanimated corpses, one of whom stumbles – bringing dollops of infected blood with her – into the car 13 vestibule. Showtime. Now it’s up to the passengers (and the zombies) to flee/chomp their way to the front of the train.
Luckily our hero is valiant and brave, right? Not so fast (though the zombies definitely are, and very much in the World War Z “EVERYBODY PILE ON” mode). The first choice he makes is to close the sliding doors on about 200 hundred zombies, an uninfected husband, and his (very pregnant) wife. That the latter two make it through unscathed (no thanks to him) is to be a source of much discomfort for Seok – and the audience, expertly mined by writer/director Sang-Ho Yeon.
And while Yeon does chicken out a bit by giving Train To Busan a definite villain character in the form of an almost impossibly solipsistic COO, it’s hard to overstate just how deliciously pessimistic his view of human nature is. Fleeing passengers toss their compatriots to the horde while mere feet above them hang television monitors that show a corrupt government attempting to pass the attacks off as “riots” committed by aggrieved members of the proletariat. Glorious, glorious music to this writer’s cynical ears. And if the film is ultimately a tad thesis-y to earn a late hail-mary pass for tears, it’s a small price to pay for the aforementioned glorious music.
A Promising Talent: Lest Train To Busan sound too much like a civics lesson, its worth mentioning that Yeon absolutely kills it. He’s got a background in Anime. But with a camera that more often than not sits gorgeously still, what comes to mind are the backward-thumbing splash panels of really great Manga. An early shot pulling through a car window to show its dazed reflection of a burning building is a great example of this young director’s mastery of comic-book panel like succession. His zombies fall like perfectly plotted dominoes. And while Yeon doesn’t quite show the knack for reckless genre blending that many of his contemporaries have (the few attempts at humor here fall uniformly flat), he’s still an exciting voice, one that will undoubtably reward attention.
Not Quite a Connection: Speaking of those contemporaries, the easy take on Train To Busan, of course, is that its Snowpiercer, except with poor-people replaced by zombies (thankfully, the film does not deign to compare the two, as that would be… queasy). But honestly, other than the train setting, some slight hints of class warfare, and a superficially similar ending the two films don’t really have too much in common.
Overall: Doubling back to that ending, and its superficial similarities to Snowpiercer’s – without spoiling anything, both films end on an image of a woman and child walking towards an uncertain future. Whereas the last shot of Joon-Ho’s film stands strong with belief in humanity’s continued perseverance, Train To Busan ends on just about the darkest, most rueful note imaginable (as well as serving as a neat homage to the OG zombie text, Night of The Living Dead). This may well be a Train to Busan, but its final destination is almost undoubtedly hell. Buckle up.
Featured Image: Next Entertainment World