Maybe a couple of months ago, Mekaela told me about a Korean zombie movie she wanted to check out sometime: Train to Busan. I was interested (I mean, zombies on a train? Of course I was interested!), but between life and all the television we wanted to watch, we didn’t quite get around to it. It wasn’t until we were roughly halfway through watching kdrama Goblin that I realized Gong Yoo starred in the film. So after we finished the show, we knew what we had to do.
All in all, it’s a pretty decent zombie film.
Workaholic Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) reluctantly takes his unhappy daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-an), on the train to Busan to visit her mother. Enter: zombies. Lots of them.
1. Train to Busan is a good zombie film for people who like a little more pathos in their horror and a little less gore. (Not that you can’t have pathos with gore, of course. Frankly, that’s my favorite kind.) By American standards, this isn’t a particularly gross film. There’s blood and death and creepy contacts, sure, but not much in the way of intestines or severed limbs or anything like that. If you’re looking for Dead Alive or The Walking Dead, well, this isn’t it.
There is, however, a surprising amount of heart in this movie. The emotional core of the story isn’t particularly original–in fact, it’s one that I’m actively tired of: a selfish, workaholic father who doesn’t pay enough attention to his child goes through something dangerous and/or horrific and has to learn how to be a Good Person and a Real Dad. That being said, I must admit that ultimately I do buy the arc. There are some nicely poignant moments in this movie, and between watching Goblin and this, there’s been a lot of pointing at Gong Yoo’s handsome face in this house and yelling, “Stop making me tear up with your manly emotions, you bastard!”
2. Unfortunately, this movie gives absolutely nothing for the women to do.
The best thing I can say about gender roles in Train to Busan is that it’s not only the women who do the crying, something I can hardly say about most American films. On the other hand, the men also get all the action scenes. I can only think of one halfway-interesting thing a woman does in this movie; otherwise, the ladies have little to no personality and mostly exist to be in danger. The kid is a kid and needs to be protected. The pregnant lady is pregnant and needs to be protected. The teenager’s love interest is a love interest and needs to be protected. Blah blah woof woof.
3. The best character in this movie is definitely Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok).
What I find most interesting about him is that, at first, he doesn’t seem particularly badass, like, he seems like a pretty normal dude, maybe a schmuck or a comic relief, but probably not the action hero. He certainly doesn’t seem to have what I’d associate as the Typical Action Hero Physique, you know, tall and lean with a chiseled jaw and arms the size of tree trunks. (Well. His arms actually do look pretty built.) But that’s all wrong: Sang-hwa is definitely the badass of the film. He’s funny, too, and watching him punch zombies and shit, like, all burly? That’s pretty cool.
4. The pacing is also quite good. You always wonder about that kind of thing when you have such a seemingly bottle episode type plot. Sure, a zombie movie set on a train sounds awesome, but it’s also not hard to see how it could easily become repetitive if not plotted out properly. Here, though, I was impressed with how well the story was structured. None of the action scenes ever felt contrived to me, and nothing stretched out longer than it needed to.
Everything else I’d like to mention, unfortunately, includes spoilers. You know what to do.
5. This movie doesn’t have a promising start, at least, not if you want to take it seriously. It begins with a zombie deer, and people, zombie deer are inherently ridiculous. I mean, maybe if they’re actively munching on you personally sure, but . . . you know, no, it’d still be absurd. Just, like, macabrely absurd. What I’m saying is, while zombie animals are a time-honored tradition, certain kinds probably shouldn’t be zombified and expected to be taken seriously. Dobermans are one thing. Bambi is quite something else.
6. If you’re curious, the one halfway-interesting thing a woman does in this movie? She (specifically, Jong-gil, played by Park Myung-sin) purposefully floods one of the train cars with zombies, killing herself and nearly all the people who were too cowardly to let our group of heroes inside. See, it was their fear that got both Awesome Sang-hwa and elderly In-gil (Ye Soo-jung), Jong-gil’s sister, killed. This scene plays less like a moment of revenge to me than it does a moment of penance and nihilistic grief: Jong-gil, after all, didn’t move to help the heroes, either–although I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that she’d already thought her sister was dead at this point and still looked pretty shell-shocked from the loss. Either way, I’m pretty sure this is the only thing a woman does in Train to Busan that suggests the slightest shred of agency.
7. The men, of course, have much more agency. Sadly, that basically just means they all die.
I was saddest, of course, for Sang-hwa, but I was also legitimately bummed for the train conductor and Baseball Kid, both who are killed because of Total Jackass (Kim Eui-sung). Actually, almost everyone who dies in this movie dies either directly or indirectly because of Total Jackass. Sometimes, this is less than surprising, like when TJ throws Train Attendant Dude to the wolves, so to speak, but when he pops out of nowhere and does the same thing to Baseball Kid’s Love Interest? I’ll admit, that was a pretty good holy shit moment. It happened so fast I wasn’t expecting it at all. (Baseball Kid cradles her dying body until she turns and munches upon him. There are actually a lot of movie romances that I wish would end this way, but sadly this wasn’t one of them.)
8. The scene where Total Jackass becomes a zombie works astonishingly well.
After the deaths of the teenagers, I was pretty much ready for this guy to be eaten alive by a thousand zombies and then maybe crushed by a piano, just for good measure. I really wasn’t planning on having the slightest bit of sympathy for him . . . and yet when he begins to turn and admits that he’s afraid and just wants to get home to his mom?
That moment really lands, not just because it’s the kind of thought you or I might have, but because TJ is like the reverse mirror image of Seok-woo, who absolutely begins this movie as the kind of selfish ass who’d readily leave anyone behind if that meant saving his own skin. Total Jackass, basically, is Seok-woo without the redemptive arc–it’s even reflected in their costuming! (They’re the only two main characters wearing business suits, I think, but Seok-woo’s jacket comes off the moment he really starts on the path of Redemptive Hero. Total Jackass, meanwhile, wears his stuffy suit jacket until the bitter end.)
While I can’t help but remain a bit bored by any Deadbeat Daddy Redemptive Arc, I can’t lie: this is structured very, very well here.
9. It also helps that Gong Yoo acts the holy hell out of his last scenes.
Seok-woo is bitten when fighting Total Jackass, of course, that miserable bastard. He gets his kid and the Pregnant Lady safely in the engine room and then leaves, sobbing as he starts to turn . . . though he does get a nice Moment of Peace before he willingly falls off the train. I was absolutely pointing at the TV screen at this point and cursing this bastard for making me cry so much this past month. Ugh, man tears. Why do they get me so badly?
10. Finally, while it’s hardly surprising for a woman and child to be the final survivors, what is surprising is that Train to Busan is the rare horror movie where walking down a dark tunnel actually might not be a bad call.
In this film, zombies are completely blind in the dark and won’t attack unless they can hear you. For once, that makes dark tunnels your friend since, eventually, human eyes do adjust. Unlike the crew from 28 Days Later, Little Kid and Preggers aren’t actually being idiots when they walk into the tunnel . . .
. . . at least, not until they start singing. I guess I could accept this from the kid being that she’s a kid, but Preggers has absolutely no excuse. Of course, singing ultimately saves their lives here (because the snipers initially assumed they were zombies and were about to Night of the Living Dead their way into credits), but I still call bullshit. Any kind of singing, even if it’s a thematically appropriate song, should absolutely get you dead if you’re walking down a dark tunnel where zombies may or may not lurk.
These two kind of deserve to die. That’s all I’m saying here.
Enjoyable and well-crafted, but definitely a dude-heavy showcase.
Gong Yoo, but Ma Dong-seok is a close second
Oh, so many to choose from. Take the time to appreciate your kids. Don’t be a dick in the zombie apocalypse. Save others, so they’ll save you. Singing will save your life, even though it absolutely shouldn’t.