This was my first experience viewing a Korean film in the cinema. So far the only Korean movies I have watched are Oldboy, The Host. Wolf Boy and Snowpiercer (it’s American, but directed by Bong Joon-ho, the same guy behind The Host).

The movie wasn’t that bad, but it annoyed me by not setting out to fully explore themes it was clearly aware of.

The story follows a fund manager who spends too much time at work to care about his family. He’s undergoing a divorce while his mother helps to look after his daughter. On the day of the events in this film, he brings his daughter to Busan to visit her mother, while a zombie outbreak takes place.

The positives:

  1. Setting – The train is a very unique location for a zombie survival story, and the film utilizes the claustrophobia of narrow corridors  pretty well.
  2. Cinematography – Probably because this is the rare big budget film for this genre, there are some mesmerizing wide angle shots of the South Korean landscape; large empty roads, the busy cities in the urban area, etc.
  3. Ma Dong-seok’s Sang-hwa was an absolute delight  to watch. Charismatic character / actor.
  4. Some dark humour with parodies of Korean teen romance, I’m glad it was intentional.
  5. The film is aware of moralistic themes that go beyond the genre: one striking scene is when Jong-gil opens the train door for her sister in the film. It’s an unexpected event, but one that has enough build-up and foreshadowing sprinkled throughout the film.

According to my friend who is more well-versed with Korean culture, this is supposedly the first zombie film by the Korean movie industry, and if that were true, this is a pretty huge milestone for them. This is also director Yeon Sang-ho’s first live action film. It didn’t feel like an amateur effort when I was watching.

Negatives:

 

  1. The zombies aren’t scary, These are very similar to the ones from I Am Legend and a couple of zombie scenes seem to have been lifted of World War Z. There is barely any gore, only a little blood when the zombies are biting the living. The zombies not being able to “see” their prey has got to be one of the weirdest zombie mechanics I’ve seen in a zombie film.
  2. Despite setting up the foundations for examining selfishness and family in the movie, the ending seems to have thrown all this development out for a melodramatic moment that doesn’t even flow well with the narrative.  The lead character’s role as a fund manager seemed like a fantastic window to critique the financial world but is only referenced for a couple of jokes and a weird scene towards the end when an assistant calls the fund manager and asks if it’s their fault for funding the science research centre from which the zombie epidemic started.
  3. Follows the “everyone must die” cliche for all zombie survival films. Deaths feel cheapened if you have to kill off every character.
  4. Gong Yoo is a terribly wooden actor. He has a crying scene and smiles for one part of the film but he’s staring about blankly for the most part.

Comparing with the other two Korean films I’ve seen:

One of the reasons I loved The Host was it’s critique on the inefficiency of the government as it dealt with the monster of the film. There were explicit scenes where the cast is placed in humorous situations in quarantine zones with government officials, which begged the question: who was the real monster? Snowpiercer also took place on a train in an apocalyptic world, and explored the spectrum of class as the main cast traveled to the front of the train where the upper class enjoyed better spaces and privileges. The problem I have with Train To Busan was that such ideas WERE touched upon, with various characters of different financial background, with both the protagonist and antagonist playing similar roles in society. However, the antagonist just goes on the become the stereotype asshole of a zombie film who would sacrifice others to save himself. Perhaps, as a big budget film, the production team was constrained on how much time it allocate to these themes, as opposed to popcorn fare (of which there was plenty in this movie). Nevertheless, it’s a damn shame because I personally thought this movie could have been on the forefront of the genre had such themes been explored. As it is, it feels more generic.

 

Comparing with Hollywood zombie films:

It feels like a tired genre (even though most people probably haven’t sat through an entire zombie film) not just for movies but for games, with countless titles like Left For Dead. Dead Rising and the fantastic Daylight all crossing the checks on all the cliches this type of stories would have. It might surprise people that many acclaimed directors today started out with zombie or horror films. Here’s couple that managed to overcome the boundaries of the genre the way Train to Busan should have-

 

  • Shaun Of The Dead by Edgar Wright- already innovative by being a comedy instead of a horror film, the movie had fantastic social commentary, with the opening titles explicitly showing how people behaved like zombies even before the outbreak began. There are even some hilarious scenes where the lead characters are still unaware of what’s happening.
  • Dawn Of The Dead, both the original by George Romero in 1978 and the remake by Zack Snyder in 2004. The former accidentally explores the characters running away from their predicaments by enjoying the consumables in a shopping centre, providing a social commentary on consumerism. On the other hand, the latter forgoes the social commentary (or does it? I may have to rewatch) in favour of pure horror and action, with some of the most tragic character arcs ever filmed for a horror movie.

All in all, Train To Busan was still a pleasant watch, despite my gripes with it. It’s slightly better than the average zombie flick.

 

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