NR 118 mins. Yeon Sang-ho South Korea 2016
One of the best horror films of 2016
Train to Busan marks the live-action debut of animator Yeon Sang-ho—and it is a stunning debut. It tells the story of a workaholic fund manager, Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) whose marriage appears to have been a casualty both of his ambition and of what his daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an), describes as his ingrained propensity to think only of himself. When the film opens, Su-an is staying with her father in Seoul, but she demands he take her back to her mother in Busan—which sets off the eponymous high-speed train ride. As father and daughter board the train, evidence of strange, violent behavior manifests on the edges of the frame, not quite in vision—but soon it’s clear that something is infecting the passengers on the train. What follows is a terrifying film about the struggle of the dwindling uninfected against the increasing hordes of infected. The film is also about so much more than that—it’s about what humans are capable of becoming, both good and bad.
Train to Busan clearly draws on the recent “fast zombie” lineage of 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007), and World War Z (2013). (Many of the amazing visual scenes of the infected stacking on top of one another evoke one of the more powerful scenes in the otherwise less-than-powerful World War Z.) In my view, though, Train to Busan is clearly superior to the latter two films—and pretty much on a par with Danny Boyle’s brilliant 28 Days. But as much as Yeon Sang-ho is clearly steeped in the infected/zombie tradition, he creates his own zombie mythology: the infected are driven by sight, for instance, and simply stand helpless in the dark—an interesting inversion of the fact that it’s usually darkness that breeds monsters.
Formidable antagonists that they are, the zombies of Train to Busan are nonetheless a backdrop to the human drama that unfolds on the train as it speeds through the South Korean landscape. The allegorical weight of Train to Busan reminded me of the recent Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013), an international collaboration among South Korea, the Czech Republic, France, and the USA. Train to Busan is less heavy-handed and less dour (though not, in the end, less bleak). But, like Snowpiercer, it is about much more than people struggling to survive on a speeding train.
One of the things Train to Busan is obviously about is the corruption of wealth, power, privilege and cronyism, and the film pretty clearly taps into the recent political turmoil in South Korea, where the highly unpopular President Park Geun-hye has just been impeached after years of questions about her “collusion with elites.” Park’s impeachment came on the heels of her indictment as a criminal accomplice after her friend used her connection with the president to funnel untold amounts of money into her own foundations.[i] With millions of South Koreans marching in protest of Park and her popularity sinking to 4%, the nations’ outrage about influence peddling and money-making among the privileged few infuses Train to Busan. The protagonist himself, Seok Woo, is immediately on the phone after he realizes the severity of the outbreak, acquiring “inside information” about how to get himself and his daughter to safety, information he signally fails to share with any of the other desperate passengers. His daughter Su-an, who serves as his conscience, calls him on his abandonment of the rest of the fleeing passengers—“Just us?” she says, as they split off from the other survivors.
This moment, though, and Su-an’s question, begins Seok Woo’s gradual and painful process of learning to act for others and not only himself. Moments when numerous survivors crowd into the train’s uncannily large bathrooms represent the growing sense of community, and in the screenshot below, Seok Woo is on the phone again, but this time for everyone not just for himself.
Another passenger, Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung), also a wealthy and powerful businessman, similarly uses his connections to try to manipulate his way (and his way alone) to safety: scenes of his throwing survivors to the infected to buy time are some of the most striking in the film. Yong-suk is a rather cartoonish villain, but I have to admit to loving his excesses. While Seok Woo slowly and painfully becomes a better man, Yong-suk from beginning to end represents nothing but the ferocious selfishness of power and privilege.
Of course, as much as Train to Busan may be tapping into South Korean politics, the problem of those with power and wealth benefitting only themselves, literally casting others into the maws of death, will likely resonate with American audiences, whatever their political orientation. So I was kind of stunned to learn that that Train to Busan will get an English language remake (Gaumont just acquired the rights).[ii] There are obvious problems with an English language remake. First: Why in the hell do you need to remake a brilliant film just because it’s not in English? Second—and in response to the first: it’s just a blatant money grab and a rather large “screw you” to artistry. But remaking Train to Busan seems particularly problematic because it actually (already) represents fundamentally cross-cultural human and political issues. South Korea may have its particular issues with the criminal cronyism of the wealthy few, but what country doesn’t? (That President Park’s indictment involved the misuse of foundations should sound familiar to American readers!)
As a testament to Train to Busan’s ability to reach across nations and cultures (and evidence that it shouldn’t be re-made!), Train not only calls upon US and UK zombie films, but also the classic American disaster films of the 1970s. I couldn’t help but think of Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974) in particular. Like Train, those films always centered on the problems of selfishness and the virtue of working for the collective good. And there was always some character (like Young-suk) who imperils everyone by his cowardly selfishness. (Read Liz’s great post on 70s disaster films as horror).
In the end, Train centers most profoundly perhaps on the question of whether one thinks and acts only for oneself or for the common good—the latter to be clearly distinguished from a dangerous conformity, a blind doing of what one is told. (And the zombie mob has long served as a great metaphor for conformity.) The opening shot of the film—an automaton—makes it clear from the beginning that the dangers of conformity will be front and center.
And then, many of the most powerful subsequent scenes visually dramatize the passengers struggling with all of these impulses: to act selfishly, to help others, to blindly follow someone who sets himself up as a leader, to follow the crowd. These struggles are played out literally around the train doors, as some of the clear lines of distinction between infected and uninfected become blurred.
In one memorable scene, the core group of survivors tries to keep out the infected at one end of the train carriage while trying to break through the door at the other end after the rest of survivors, led, of course, by Yong-suk, have barricaded them out for fear of infection.
In short, watch Train to Busan and don’t wait for the remake! The acting is simply superb: I didn’t even get to mention two of my favorite characters—Jung Yu-mi as Sung Gyeong and Ma Dong-seok as Sang Hwa. And the film is, bottom-line, exciting, thought-provoking and brilliantly directed from beginning to end.
[i] “Why So Many South Koreans Are Fed Up with Their President,” The Economist, December 6, 2016.
[ii] “‘Train to Busan’ English-Language Rights Go to Gaumont,” Variety, December 7, 2016