*The Hollywood Reporter
From the classic Romero films to The Walking Dead, the zombie genre is one that is quintessentially American. However, moviegoers rarely get to see foreign perspectives on the genre, which makes Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan a uniquely enjoyable experience.
Set in modern-day South Korea, Train to Busanfollows a businessman Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter as they struggle to survive on the titular train to Busan after a rapid outbreak of a zombie-creating pathogen. After an infected passenger turns, the zombie infection travels rapidly through the train, and the country as a whole. Very quickly the passengers are faced with a trade off between holding off the known danger on the train or facing the uncertainty beyond the train doors.
It is very interesting to observe the kind of zombie that Director Yeon created for his movie. Rather than the slow, plodding zombie that is classic to American cinema, Yeon’s monsters are blisteringly fast and turn very quickly, almost instantly in most cases. Overall, the zombies are much more in the style ofWorld War Z (2013) or 28 Days Later (2002).
When the original infected passenger turns, and we are given our first look at a zombie in the film, it spasms so violently that its neck cracks and breaks; however, this does not slow down the creature, nor does anything else. Even baseball bats seem useless in decommissioning Yeon’s zombies, forcing the passengers to abandon the strategy of fighting. This departure from standard American protocol (i.e. kill ‘em all) might arise from a key cultural difference between South Korea and America: Koreans don’t have guns.
As one would expect, a movie with unkillable zombies features a lot of running, and therefore many occasions where someone is left behind. The primary theme of the movie is how the characters respond to these situations where one of their own is helpless; will you go back for a stranger, or do you selfishly protect yourself?
Seok-woo, the main protagonist, exemplifies this conflict individually. Early in the movie, it is established that he is a workaholic who can’t be bothered to show his daughter (or his ex-wife) the attention that they deserve. Now, put in a situation where he must keep himself and his daughter alive amidst total strangers, his businessman killer instinct comes into conflict with his daughter’s innocent conscience. How could someone leave another person to die in front of their one daughter?
The theme of selflessness vs. self-preservation runs deep through every character in the film, and their responses separate the heroes from the villains. As with the great American films, Train to Busan does not centralize the plot around the zombies; rather, the interactions between the characters carry the meaning throughout the film. The zombies are but a medium through which to challenge the characters, as they should be.
Train to Busan is not without its faults. As a zombie movie, plot options are generally limited, and with characters that cannot permanently fend off any of the zombies, the options are limited even further. Awkward (but admittedly cool) fight scenes consist of characters punching zombies to ward them off, something that would never fly in an American movie where zombies tend to be much grabbier. Additionally, the claustrophobic space of the train led to repetitive action sequences as the protagonists would rush down the car and hurriedly slam the door.
Despite the flaws of the movie, Train to Busan is undoubtedly one of the better zombie movies out there, and it is extraordinarily refreshing to see the genre shaken up a bit by a different cultural lens. While the ceiling for zombie movies is not that high, Train to Busan lives up to all of its potential and evades many of the genre’s conventional limits.
Wagner’s Watch-worthiness: 8/10