I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Train to Busan

Most of the great zombie movies are not as much about zombies as about people and what they do when they band together and try to survive. This is the case with TRAIN TO BUSAN, last year’s South Korean smash hit about the passengers on a train during a sudden ghoulification outbreak.

It centers on this dude Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo, THE SUSPECT) who is kinda like John McClane in that he’s fucked things up with his family because of his work and you kinda feel sorry for him and know he wants to fix things even though to be honest he shoulda known better. But he’s unlike McClane in that he’s a handsome well-dressed fund manager guy. Totally different color of collar. Come to think of it he literally had a white collar because I noticed the tall collar on his shirt looked cool.

Anyway he’s got a bunch of shit going on at work but he reluctantly agrees to bring his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) on the train to Busan to see her mother, because it’s her birthday and she kept threatening to go by herself and then he really blew it when trying to buy her a good present.

It takes its time establishing the family troubles here and getting them on this trip. Or at least longer than UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY does with Uncle Casey bringing a teddy bear and realizing his niece is way too old for it. It’s as the train is just about to close the doors that a messed up infected individual darts on so fast the ticket taker happens to be looking the other way and doesn’t notice. There are so many what ifs here: what if the door closed half a minute earlier? What if he refused to let his daughter go to Busan? Or what if she had gone by herself like she originally planned?

We see a few of the staff and other passengers – including young Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik) and his baseball team and Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee) the unofficial cheerleader who goes along because she’s courting him – before “violence breaks out” on the back of the train and starts moving its way up. Writer/director Yeon Sang-ho (whose other three features are animated, strangely) does a great job of showing the people not immediately recognizing what’s going on. Seok-Woo, for example, sees someone run by in a panic but he seems to kinda figure “huh, wonder what’s that about?” and doesn’t react too much. Like, sometimes somebody lunges at you or does something crazy on the sidewalk, the natural thing is to not encourage them by reacting.

But if you have a member of the train crew running down the aisle screaming while somebody else is on her back contorting their body in strange ways and gurgling and hissing while chewing at her neck, then you should react.

Zombie details: fast, jerky, caused by some sort of chemical leak, transmitted by bite or death. They have visible veins and whitened eyes that turn out to be helpful to the living because it means they can’t see well in low light situations. Therefore much of the action of the movie involves sneaking past them during the windows of opportunity when the train goes through a tunnel.

Sang-ho continually comes up with new tricks like that and things for them to have to do to survive – calm the zombies by staying out of their view, battle their way through them to get to the car they think is safe, find another train when the tracks are blocked. The mastermind of many of these plans is Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok, THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD), the tough husband of pregnant Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi, A BITTERSWEET LIFE), who acts like a cool uncle to Soo-an but instantly dislikes her dad and gives him lots of shit. He’s being macho but he has good reason for it (Seok-woo shut a door in front of them when they were fleeing and hesitated before letting them in) so it’s very satisfying when Sang-hwa warms up enough to at least start calling him “buddy” and trusting him to help with his ideas.

One unusual change from the Romero standard: they don’t have guns or knives, so there’s no discussion of how to kill zombies, and I’m not sure if they do kill any. Instead it’s all about punching and throwing them to get past them and get through doors. They do use baseball bats but it’s to knock them out of the way, not necessarily to pop their skulls open. They use shields and cover their wrists in thick layers of tape like gauntlets.

The more apocalyptic zombie stories tend to at least flirt with a survivalist attitude, they tempt you to believe that shit is so bad you’d be stupid not to adopt an every-man-for-himself, kill-or-be-killed philosophy. In this one, Seok-woo starts out with it and tries to teach his daughter to only look out for herself during this emergency, not risk herself to help others. But she shames him, telling him that his selfishness is what caused his divorce and basically parenting him over the course of the movie, teaching him to help others.

The true villains of TRAIN TO BUSAN are (SPOILER) the C.O.O. Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung, ASSASSINATION) and the others who ended up in the front car and listen to him when he argues that they can’t let anybody on because they could be infected. Our people fight car after car of zombies to get here and now they have to fight the living just as viciously. There’s a potent and completely believable feeling of betrayal at this disgusting act. Some get riled up and yell and swear at the newly arrived to leave the car. Others hang their heads in shame but still choose desperate-heartless-self-preservation over moral courage. Watching it right now the obvious analogy to make is our country cruelly slamming the door in the face of refugees fleeing from war zones on the theory that they could be terrorists. Honestly, the immoral decision in the movie is more understandable than ours is.

But man, that fucking COO continues to Billy-Zane-in-TITANIC up the place, literally pushing people into zombies so he can make a run for it. I forget what his company is but I am NEVER using their product or service again in my opinion. The other characters, though, I really grew attached to, they feel strong enough that you expect most of them to make it through, and (SPOILER) most of them don’t. There’s more than one touching scene of self sacrifice as one character we like holds the horde back so the other characters we like can get away. I found it sad but I gotta tell you, I was taken completely off guard when I started spouting honest-to-goodness tears all the sudden near the end. It came almost out of the blue like when I lost it during THE TREE OF LIFE. I will tell you which part in the last paragraph for those of you who have seen the movie already. The rest of you, I think you should choo-choo-choose to watch TRAIN TO BUSAN.

BIG SPOILERS THIS PARAGRAPH. It was after the scene when Seok-Woo has been bitten protecting Su-an and Seong-Kyeong and realizes he has to say goodbye and then get away from them before he ghouls out. The solemnly-facing-the-reality-that-they’re-turning is a standard zombie movie event, but this one has really made us invest in this guy improving his relationship with his daughter, so it’s not as much losing him that’s sad as knowing that his daughter is being left alone. And he steps out to the back of the train and I thought about my dad’s dementia and the horrible daydreams I have about what I would do if I realized it was happening to me. And that’s personal shit that I brought to the movie of course but I’ve seen a million zombie movies and this is the first one that was human enough to give me those types of associations. And come to think of it they pointed me in that direction with the earlier scene of the infected conductor who seems to be having a childhood flashback just before he turns and starts asking for his mom. The most heartwrenching zombie turn I’ve ever seen! At least Seok-Woo’s transition is beautiful. He remembers his daughter’s birth and he smiles.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 21st, 2017 at 11:45 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “Train to Busan”

  1. Minor point but wasn’t it the COO guy who has the childlike moment you reference in the final paragraph? I thought it was an interesting little character moment for someone who acts like a selfish kid throughout

  2. This was a really good action-adventure movie, but the fact that it’s about zombies makes it a tough sell for most people. Most of the characters are pure archetype, but everyone’s motivations and behaviour (even that miserable, selfish fucker Yon-Suk) make sense in context. The geography is well-established, everyone has a clear goal that they are working towards and all the action set-pieces are creative and well-shot. And for a movie with so much death and heroic self-sacrifice, it’s also a lot of fun. It just a well-done movie from top to bottom.

    The ending had me tearing up as well. I’ve heard some complaints that it’s too melodramatic, but there are times where subtlety can go eat a dick, and I think this is one of those times. Sorry it dredged up painful memories for you, but sometimes I find that kind of personal emotional investment in a movie can be a cathartic experience.

  3. The traitorous CEO owned a bus company :)

    Yeon Sang-ho was an animation director prior; this was his first live-action film. As such it’s more plot-driven than character-driven, which is understandable. I thought the direction & editing was a little uneven. A more experienced director would’ve tightened certain parts, but then the inconsistent nature of Korean movies is also part of its charm, i.e. they are often a single person’s creative vision, without the multiple rewrites & studio interference that is the bane of Hollywood productions.

    BTW According to Korean press interviews, it took a few years for Train To Busan to get greenlighted (that’s why Yeon made the animated prequel Seoul Station first), & Gong Yoo (who has a few all-time box-office hits but isn’t always feted as a superstar) was the one who called in industry favors after he signed on.

  4. i’d recommend watching KING OF PIGS from this guy. it really left an impression on me (much more so than train, which i thought was decent but not particularly memorable)

  5. George Sanderson

    March 23rd, 2017 at 5:29 am

    I loved this movie. It was huge here in Hong Kong and I actually got to see it at the theatre. I don’t do so well with the ultra gory zombie movies so I appreciated the restraint shown in the attacks and I thought that the problem solving in absence of weapons made everything much more tense.
    This was also huge in South Korea (something like 20% of the country saw it) and the blaming of the death toll on the corporates in the front carriage is supposed to be commentary on the governments role in trying to cover up deaths in an overloaded ferry accident a few years back as well as their distribution of misleading information during an outbreak of MERS last year.

  6. Just watched this movie.

    Probably the best fast-moving zombie movie of all time.

    Like Vern, I too found this moving.

    It even made me cry out of my left eye (I’m normally a right eye crier)

  7. Oh, and that sleazy cowardly COO guy is one of the all-time great movie cunts (Can I say that on an American website? I know it’s a bit more loaded on that side of the pond)

  8. David Cloverfield

    March 24th, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Just watched it and loved it. It was your review that convinced me to finally do so. I have a crazy theory: selfish CEO guy is not who he says he is. As shit hits the fan he tells the conductor that he is a the CEO of the train company, makes a half hearted attempt to look for an ID, and suddenly, this makes him be in charge in the chaos. He is an opportunistic survivor to the bone. Kind of awesome.

  9. Huh. I liked the movie a lot, but I found the character work, especially the father, terrible. Beyond hackneyed. I mean- the guy’s a career executive who chooses his job over going to see his daughter’s recital… that’s some Adam Sandler-level shit. The asshole uninfected-first carriage mob was great, though.
    As was the action. It gets a huge amount of mileage out of its everypeople protagonists, making for some really tense sequences.
    Finally, it’s the only zombie movie I can think of right now that has a positive message and pleads for compassion and empathy. They tend to run cynical or, as Vern points out, pro-assholes.

  10. Just finished. Incredible movie. I thought I was tired of zombie movies and then somebody makes a movie like this one. I COO almost ruined the movie for me but it worked out OK. I teared up twice during it.

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