By now most horror fans have experienced or heard about the greatness of TRAIN TO BUSAN, the 2016 South Korean fast-zombie-plague movie. If you’re in the latter category, I know it’s easy to believe the hype but still feel no urgency to see it, because yeah, I get it. Zombies on a train. So I’ll just say again that while it’s impressive that it made me think “Okay, it turns out I do want another fucking zombie movie,” the real achievement is making me so attached to the characters and attuned to the tragedy of their horror movie circumstances that I produced actual tears near the end. Have I ever cried from a horror movie before? Not that I remember.
When I went to write the review I was surprised to learn that writer/director Yeon Sang-ho’s previous movies were all animated. He’d been doing animated shorts since the ‘90s, before the features KING OF PIGS (2011), THE FAKE (2013). Even more interesting, TRAIN TO BUSAN is sort of a sequel or tie-in to an animated feature called SEOUL STATION that Yeon did immediately before it. I didn’t realize it had come out in the U.S. until I noticed it streaming on Shudder.
In recent times of world turmoil, I’ve found that cartoons are good for escapism. This is not such a cartoon. It’s the type of animation that mimics reality – live action style camera movement and lighting, true-to-life character animation, attention to detail in everything from the stripes on a guy’s polo shirt to the crack in a cell phone. I can’t quite put my finger on why this works so well. It’s not unleashing the power of unbound imagination that drawings make possible, and it’s by definition stylized in a way that our brains could never fully accept as reality. And yet it’s totally captivating. There’s some kind of alchemy in that.
More than that, this is not escapism because it’s a very angry and biting (pun not intended, but welcome) portrait of real world problems. There are scenes inspired by the South Korean democracy movement of the time, that predict the protests that would soon break out. But the main theme is the crisis of homelessness, which applies directly to countries and cities all around the world.
It starts with two young men on the street outside the train station, liberals maybe, in the middle of a conversation about the need for “universal welfare,” when they notice an old man stumbling by with blood on his neck. They hesitate briefly before one decides to do the right thing and go ask the man if he’s all right. Before he gets a response he gags, overwhelmed by a stench, and comes back to his friend.
“He’s a homeless,” he chuckles. “I was going to help him if he was hurt.”
Is the old man a zombie? Maybe not. But it’s true that he’s “a homeless.” He goes into the station and sits next to a wall, apparently his usual spot. His brother finds him there, notices the blood, tries to get help. He’s kind of a timid guy who stumbles along, hunched over, and follows much of what he says with a nervous laugh. He tries to find him medical help at a shelter. A woman explains that the place is full, but there’s a guy who’s feeling better who could give up his bed. This does not go well. So we have this ticking time bomb, this guy who is a zombie or is becoming a zombie, in the middle of a crowded city, where most people won’t look at him, and no one can help him.
It’s a sprawling story, but I’d say the protagonist is Hye-sun, a teenage runaway who’s behind on rent and about to be evicted. Against her wishes, her boyfriend Ki-woong goes to an internet cafe and posts an ad for her on some online callgirl service. His excuse is that she’s done it before (she recently escaped from a brothel), so why be precious about it? He’s a very modern, infuriatingly character – a babyfaced, bespectacled young geek who sincerely argues that she should just turn tricks until next month and then he’ll try to get a job, and has no idea that he’s the bad guy. He seems to think she’s being totally irrational.
He’s a character who I had no choice but to hate from the beginning, but then he really is trying to find her, and she’s trying to get back to him since he represents some semblance of safety, so it’s complicated. It’s interesting that this shitty amateur pimp is voiced by a K-pop star. Lee Joon was mentored by Rain and also played the teen version of his character in NINJA ASSASSIN.
Hye-sun is long gone by the time Ki-woong goes to meet her first customer, an older, burly man named Suk-gyu. It’s pretty satisfying to see Ki-woong’s terror when Suk-gyu grabs him by the shirt, says he’s Hye-sun’s father, and demands to know where she is.
So that’s the situation. This angry man is dragging this little weasel around trying to find poor Hye-sun, but they’re separating by the escalating zombie chaos throughout the city. They’re separated by phone troubles, zombie dangers, and eventually a massive phalanx of riot police blocking off the area.
As the plague spreads through the homeless in the train station, Hye-sun and a few others manage to run into a police station, where they get trapped in a cell surrounded by zombies. She and a strange old man with a missing tooth manage to escape and are pulled into an ambulance, but the man panics when he realizes they’re going to the hospital, where he knows all the infected are being taken. (This fear hits close to home at the moment.) Eventually they find themselves on foot together in a train tunnel. After she loses it and keeps saying she wants to go home he falls to his knees and bawls. He wants to go home too, but he doesn’t have one.
Another very sad moment is when the two struggle to fit under a gate as a zombie woman approaches. It seems the man isn’t going to make it, and luckily when the woman gets there she starts talking gibberish to them. She’s not a zombie, she’s just acting weird because of some mental illness. You could see this being sort of a gag in another movie – SEOUL STATION plays the sadness as hard as the surprise and relief. You don’t really need the symbolism of people not being able to distinguish between homeless people and zombies, because it’s very clear that on a literal level those people are the most immediately vulnerable to the problem, just the same as with many real life crises (cold weather, hot weather, pandemics).
In a scorching irony, Hye-sun finds temporary shelter by breaking into the model apartment of a luxury building. We’ve spent the movie with all these people who have no place to live, and then the climax takes place in this advertisement for the super-rich, living like this right nearby.
The stuff with the police gets the blood boiling too. Ki-woong and Suk-gyu beg to be let through to find Hye-sun, and no one will help them. It reminded me of when I was stuck downtown during the WTO protests in 1999. The police were driving weird tank things down the streets saying to disperse. I was trying to disperse, but every direction I went was blocked off. You couldn’t ask the police where to go because they were spraying everybody and shooting noise bombs in the air, and when I tried to ask the National Guard where to go they wouldn’t look me in the eye or acknowledge that I was talking to them.
The police in the movie are way more understanding than they would be in real life – they actually talk to them, and even let Suk-gyu go after trying to choke one of them. But they are a machine that is following its commands, it doesn’t want to know why, it will not alter its course to help you, shut up and get out of its fucking face.
So yes, like TRAIN this is very much About Shit, but – again like TRAIN – it also totally works as a thrilling zombie survival movie. Once again it’s very good at making the people react naturally, not at first understanding what they’re looking at – initially assuming they’re dealing with humans acting strangely. And just like in live action, the ghouls get crazy eyes, dark veins, blood-smeared maws; they make jerky, jagged, unnatural movements; they hiss and gurgle and frenzy at the sight of a potential meal. It’s 2-D line-drawing type animation but there are definitely digital assists, and I suspected some of this used some mo-cap of 3D models. Whatever it is, it is excellent zombie acting in illustrated form.
In one of the most harrowing sequences, Hye-sun sees a guy hanging from a wire to cross over an alley full of the things. She tries to do it too, but she’s not as strong as he is, and has a hard time moving at all. Oh man, that scene. And after all she goes through to get across and break into a building it turns out to already be overrun.
Maybe the most original zombie action bit is when she climbs out onto a building under construction. She’s doing a balance-beam act across this metal grid and zombies keep jumping out the window at her but they’re too clumsy to land on the beams so they just keep tumbling down, one after the other.
I can’t claim to have a broad understanding of Korean cinema, but I definitely notice commonalities. Yeon clearly has some of that talent for reflecting anger about class-based injustices into genre that I associate with Bong Joon-ho. But this one reminds me that, like what I’ve seen from Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon and Na Hong-jin, Korean movies frequently invent brand new ways to be seriously fucked up. There’s a plot development in this movie that wrecked me. You’re already worried about what will happen to these characters and then you receive some information that is so disheartening. Jesus christ. Fuck. Bummer.
Shim Eun-kyung, who voices Hye-sun, also plays the first zombie in TRAIN TO BUSAN, also a teenage runaway. I think it would be cool if that was supposed to be Hye-sun, but the events don’t really match up that way, and she’s not wearing the same outfit or anything. I don’t remember if the overall timeline matches up or not, but both explore societal issues through the story of a zombie outbreak and train lines in Korea.
Last year I decided on a whim to finally watch GOOD TIME, and the very next day the trailer for UNCUT GEMS was released. This could become a trend, because the other day I was browsing Shudder, decided to watch SEOUL STATION, had this review ready to post next week, woke up this morning and saw the teaser trailer for the new live action sequel.
As it says in the trailer, TRAIN TO BUSAN presents (are you kidding me? we’re doing titles like this now?) PENINSULA is about a new set of characters four years after TRAIN TO BUSAN. So, four years and one day after SEOUL STATION. According to Screen Daily it’s about “a former soldier who manages to escape from the Korean peninsula – a zombie-infested wasteland turned into a ghetto by other nations trying to stop the spread of the virus.” It has nearly twice the budget of TRAIN and, according to Yeon, “makes it look like an independent film.” He cites LAND OF THE DEAD, THE ROAD, ROAD WARRIOR, FURY ROAD, AKIRA and a manga called Dragon Head as influences, and it’s already clear from the trailer that it’s going to be a very different, post-apocalyptic kind of thing. I hope the train tracks or tunnels are still important somehow, though. Let’s keep this train theme going.
That’s exciting, but if you want something set in a more recognizable, contemporary world, that’s very moving and intense, and deals with real life problems through the vehicle of zombie stories, but also it’s in cartoon form, then I hope you’ll listen to me and watch SEOUL STATION because frankly I don’t know what other options you have.
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.