Monday Morning Movie Review: Train to Busan (2016)

In a comment on last Monday’s review, Audre Myers asked if I would write a review of Burnt Offerings (1976).  I’ve seen the film and intend to fulfill Audre’s request posthaste, but I a.) need to rewatch it and b.) I wanted to get this review of 2016’s Train to Busan out while it’s still fresh in my mind.  That said, I always encourage requests, so if there’s any film you’d like me to review, leave a comment below!

That disclaimer aside, on to the review!

The first couple of decades of this century saw a renaissance of sorts for zombie films.  Myriad thought pieces and cultural analyses have been written exploring why, and the mass cultural appeal of zombie flicks is certainly a fascinating topic.  There is a sort of fantastical, apocalyptic element to zombie films, television shows, books, and comics that speak to the fundamental questions of humanity and civilization.  Why are we here?  How do we handle stressful, life-threatening situations?  Is civilization a shield against our baser urges?  When it collapses, do we give into those urges, or do our higher moral beliefs prevail?  Are those moral beliefs merely a mask that life in a stable, prosperous society makes the wearing of easier to achieve?  Or do we really believe in these higher ideals, even when they are battered and threatened on all sides?

It’s been written before, and I’ll write it again:  the real threat in zombie movies are not the zombies themselves, but the surviving humans.  Yes, the zombies are dangerous—and in Train to Busan, they’re quite deadly, and move with astonishing speed—but many of the film’s deaths are due to human ignorance, fear, callousness, and selfishness.  Sheer panic does much to end lives and lead to poor (and wicked) decisions, while levelheaded thinking and restraint—coupled with astonishing courage—often, though not always, lead to better outcomes.

By this metric of zombie-movies-as-movies-about-ourselves, Train to Busan succeeds wildly.  But the film is much more.

The premise of Train to Busan is simple—an overworked and fairly self-absorbed father, Seok-woo, takes his daughter Su-an to Busan for the girl’s birthday.  Along the way, a massive zombie outbreak due to a lab leak of some kind spreads with malicious rapidity throughout South Korea, resulting in cities and even military units being overrun by the undead.  In the midst of this terror, the train’s passengers try desperately to get answers, as an infected stowaway causes the disease to run rampant through the train’s cabins.

It’s a terrifying premise:  trapped on a narrow bullet train with an uncertain destination (yes, they’re going to Busan, as the title suggests, but there are other stops along the way, and even the conductor is uncertain as to whether they can even make it to Busan alive), trapped in carriages with zombies behind plexiglass doors on either side.

Naturally, you’d think everyone would sit still and wait to get to Busan, but it’s not so simple.  The train stops in Daejeon, where the passengers are expected to meet up with military protection.  As they exit the eerily empty train station, they discover that the soldiers have been zombified, and rush back to the train, which begins departing before everyone is back to safety.  A small contingent consisting of Seok-Woo and the pregnant wife of the working-class Sang-hwa find themselves on between two passenger cars filled with zombies—and no plexiglass locking doors to protect them.  They take shelter in the tiny bathroom, a horde of zombies clawing at the door to get inside.

Seok-Woo and Sang-hwa, along with a baseball bat-wielding teen, plot a desperate rescue, fighting their way through several cars to rescue the others.  Along the way, they discover that the zombies are totally useless in the dark, and time their moves for when the train passes through tunnels.

The rescue party nearly makes it back, but the craven and wicked Yon-suk, an unscrupulous COO of a major company that seems to know more than he is letting on, refuses to let the group into the main cabin, for fear that one of them may be infected.  Sang-hwa, unable to close the plexiglass door against the onslaught of zombies, sacrifices himself, giving the others enough time to force entry into Yon-suk’s car.  Yon-suk insists the surviving members of the rescue party relocate to the front vestibule until it can be determined if they are infected.

The onslaught results in the death not only of Sang-hwa, but also of an elderly woman.  Her companion, disgusted at the actions of the other passengers, opens the compartment door, killing herself and most everyone else in the carriage.  Yon-suk and a train employee escape into a bathroom, finding themselves trapped in the same manner as those previously rescued.

The train is soon blocked at another train station, and the conductor announces that he will place a new train on the far left track.  As the passengers quietly make their way towards it, another incoming train comes in, fully ablaze, and crashes into the various parked and wrecked trains.  This traps several of the characters, who have to smash their way through various train cars and avoid zombies as they make their way to the new locomotive.  The baseball player and his girlfriend are smashing their way through one such carriage when Yon-suk throws the girl to the zombies, one of the most despicable moments of the film.

Without giving too much away, only two of the characters survive the ordeal and make it to Busan—and, in a near-homage to Night of the Living Dead (1968), are nearly killed themselves, as the soldiers guarding the tunnel to their base camp cannot ascertain whether they are humans or zombies.  Readers will be satisfied to know that Yon-suk does die.

Besides the barebones synopsis I’ve provided here, what makes Train to Busan so great is the rich character development.  Seok-woo starts as a noncommittal and fairly unscrupulous financial analyst and trader, who is (it is implied) engaged in some shady business dealings.  The blue-collar Sang-hwa immediately takes a dislike to him, but does not let his distaste for Wall Street types (or whatever the Korean equivalent is called) lead him to throw his class enemy to the zombies.  Sang-hwa develops a grudging respect for Seok-woo as the latter develops and grows into a more compassionate and selfless character.  Seok-woo’s love for his daughter blossoms throughout the ordeal—it was always there, but it was buried under an avalanche of work and self-loathing.  His daughter’s admonitions strike to his heart, and his heart awakens.

There is a strong theme of sacrifice throughout the film.  Sang-hwa sacrifices himself so that his wife and his unborn child might live.  Seok-woo takes incredible risks to save his daughter and other passengers, slowly shedding his selfish sense of self-preservation.  The conductor even makes an effort to save Yon-suk when the latter falls while fleeing zombies during the train relocation scene.  The effort costs the conductor his life, making the survival of everyone else that much less likely.

As noted in my introduction, these sacrifices raise important questions.  The utilitarian might say—and perhaps justifiably—that the conductor never should have risked his life for an elderly, self-serving, wicked, and (in a sense) murderous man like Yon-suk, and instead should have acted in the interest of the group and let Yon-suk die.  That decision makes sense on paper:  Yon-suk is bad; his decisions endanger others; his actions directly result in others dying; and he probably doesn’t have many years left, anyway.  Meanwhile, the conductor knows how to operate the train, and seems intent on getting as many passengers safely to Busan as possible.

But who is to say?  The conductor did not know the depths of Yon-suk’s selfishness.  The conductor’s actions might not have been the most sensible or practical or utilitarian of them all, but they were right, morally:  he sacrificed selflessly to give another human, even a terrible one, a chance to live.

For Christians, this sacrifice for others who don’t deserve it should sound quite familiar.  Does the name “Jesus Christ” ring a train bell?

I’m not arguing Train to Busan is a Christian film.  But like most stories, its roots are in the morality of Christian faith (even more remarkable that it’s coming out of South Korea, an Eastern country, but one with strong Western influences, and a substantial Christian population).  It’s hard not to see the continual self-sacrifice of the characters, and the narrative suggests that sacrifice might not always work out perfectly, but it’s the right thing to do.  That makes it all-the-more impactful when Sang-hwa dies—and makes us cheer all the louder when Yon-suk gets his comeuppance.

I’m only scratching the surface of what Train to Busan has to offer thematically.  It’s a remarkable film, and I highly recommend you watch it.  It will have you on edge.  I’d seen the film back when it released (or thereabouts) and had forgotten about it until I watched it again last week.  It came back to me quickly, but I was still on tenterhooks waiting to see what would happen to next.  It’s rare that a film of this kind can maintain that level of suspense upon a second viewing, but Train to Busan has significant staying power.

It’s a must-see.


8 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Train to Busan (2016)

  1. I read somewhere, awhile back, that the fear in a nation can be measured by its entertainments. Plethora of horror in the last 10 years. When politics get too much for me – like now – I go back and re-binge The Walking Dead. Why is that? Because we know the monsters, we know what they want, they are single minded and unable to scheme. There’s a comfort in that when you consider that in real life, the monsters wear pretty faces and profess to be our friends while sharpening their daggers behind their backs.

    Liked by 2 people

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