Train to Busan is the kind of movie that makes me question the parameters we use to rank films. How do I rate something that excels within its genre, and is an absolute joy to watch, but lacks the emotional resonance of more dramatic fare? Is a nuanced theme mandatory for a five-star review? There are some genre films– Casino Royale in the James Bond canon, and the entire Lord of the Rings franchise– that deliver heart-wrenching moments within soaring thematic arcs that are also populated by liters of blood. But Train to Busan handles its ‘moral of the story’ rather clunkily, and I still want to send it north of 4/5– if we’re using the Letterboxd ranking system, for simplicity’s sake.
This zombie thriller, set on a train from Seoul to Busan, scores a 5/5 for make-up and effects. These departments do a terrific job transforming hundreds of extras into writhing zombies, whose eyes cloud over like cataracs upon resurrection. Black blood vessels are another telltale sign of these undead corpses. Originating from the victim’s wound, they spread poisonous muck through the body. The victim dies when the poison reaches his head, and is quickly reanimated as a zombie. It lets out a feral shriek, revealing that the creature has bloodied the inside of its mouth before consuming any prey. The strain of zombies developed for Train to Busan are filthy but mesmerizing– the holy grail in a horror film.
The pacing in Train to Busan is also commendable. The director, Yeon Sang-ho, seems to have a mathematical grip on the human heartbeat. He divides the tumultuous journey into shorter increments, each with their own arc. As more passengers are bitten by zombies and transform into thrashing flesh-eaters, the remaining humans must close the latches between train cars. These short bursts, which end in success for a steadily declining number of passengers, provide the anxious viewer short moments of relief. But these moments are brief, as the train hurries towards Busan, a location that assumes an almost mythological status in the plight of these refugees.
Periods of respite also give the characters the chance to reflect on their journey, which they do with fear, laughter, and determination. They sigh with exhaustion and grasp their loved ones. They come to terms with the reality of their situation. Some break down. Some give up– willingly. And some persevere, a feat we only believe because they’ve shown us what they have to lose. During these intermittent moments of peace, we observe the bonds and barriers that form between various survivors. Such truthful portrayals of human action truly merit a 5/5.
But Train to Busan attempts to ground itself in the strained relationship between a hedge fund manager Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) and his somewhat-neglected daughter Soo-an (Su-an Kim). Their love for each other is believable, and I prayed with every fiber of my body for them both to survive this zombie apocalypse. But a weak, cliched narrative burdens their bond, and weakens the thematic resonance of the film. Seok-Woo’s separation from his wife– Soo-an’s mother– is attributed to the former’s long hours at work, which also cause him to miss standard events in his daughter’s life. He’s a no-show at her singing recital, and accidentally buys her a present she already has. It’s classic anecdotal fare, microwaved and served lukewarm during the most idiotic pauses in hectic scenes. Seok-woo tells his daughter to only worry about herself (they are aboard a train full of zombies, to be fair). Soo-an chooses this moment to bring up her father’s selfishness as the root cause of his marital problems. It feels generic, and all but verbally informs the viewer that Seok-woo will send the next hour and a half proving himself morally. Spoiler alert: he does.
It’s hard to decide if a weakly-delivered theme (help others!) is a detriment to the film as a whole. After all, Train to Busan captures our attention through pacing and enthralling make-up, while gaining the affection of our hearts through its deeply human characters. But there has to be more at stake in Train to Busan, or this analysis would be a lot simpler. Though the moments we share with Seok-woo and Soo-an on the train render them empathetic characters, something about the story registers on a more primal level.
What if Train to Busan is actually about flight? The passengers are met with hostility everywhere they turn, as they flee from danger quite literally nipping at their heels. Families are torn apart by separating train cars, and are forced to leave their ‘dead’ behind. The people whose jobs are to transport and save people– conductors, police, the military– reveal their true, selfish colors. Train to Busan is not about selflessness on a small, familial scale, though that allegory is painfully didactic.
It’s about borders, and the circumstances that engender them. The passengers find themselves unwelcome in cities throughout South Korea. They are banished to the train, which itself becomes a complex system of borders between zombies and man, and between people deemed Us or Them. Those who turn their backs on the passengers– both governmental agents and a man who refuses to open the train door– are revenants from the past. They are revenants of those who refused the Jewish refugees entry in the 1930s. They are specters of the border patrol between the United States and Mexico, where children are separated from their parents and kept in concentration camps. They are not the first to slam the door in the face of those in need, and they will not be the last.
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