With COVID-19 infections rising around the world, I found this 2016 Korean horror film on point as it had some peculiar parallels with the real world. That is, the rapid rise in infections throughout the world. (Though I am glad that in real world, we are not facing a zombie apocalypse.) For the bunch of films in the zombie genre from Dawn of the Dead, Zombieland and I Am Legend and the myriad of television show from The Walking Dead and Z Nation, Train to Busan stands above the rest with its strong characters, story and commentary on class warfare. It is an entertaining ride.
Train to Busan is a fitting film for these times. You are introduced to the main characters Seok-woo, played by Gong Yoo, and Su-an, played by Kim Su-an, early on the film as father and daughter respectively, who start off innocent to the plight that is about to befall them. In traditional zombie film fashion, the early parts of the films establish the suspense and thrills by showing how the main character learn about the new world order, e.g. seeing a zombie eat another person for the first time. (I always find these moments interesting, even if I have seen them all too often, because you learn quickly how the zombification works and, sometimes, learn what the characters need to do to avoid becoming a zombie.)
You learn early on that the father Seok-woo is a workaholic is a funds manager, representing the upper class within society, who wants to take his daughter Su-an to spend her birthday with her mother in Busan. The story revolves around Seok-woo realizing that he hasn’t given his daughter much attention since she was born and that this pandemic brings him to the realization about what is important to him. Seok-woo changes his perspectives and in many ways changes from being a ‘snob’ to a decent person. (Seok-woo is a fitting main character for this film, because he neatly fits into the archetypical protagonist who grows into someone you respect and admire).
There are a whole cast of really good actors and actresses, whom you build a connection with, from the working class husband Sang-hwa and pregnant wife Seong-kyeong and a young baseball player Yong-guk, played by Choi Woo-shik who was in another famous Korean film Parasite. Each of these characters are fully realized and have some really interesting and key moments in the story. There is also an older couple of friends who get separated during the commotion on the train and a homeless person who all play important roles in the film as well.
On the other hand, Yon-suk, the chief operating office of Stallion Express, acts as the chief antagonist as his selfish actions throughout his film, while rooted in self preservation and fear is often the root cause for many of the lost lives in the film. Yon-suk represents the upper class who have no concern or welfare for the plight of people below his stature. (You may well know a similar person to Yon-suk in real life.)
The film is non-stop action once the zombie threat is known to our protagonists. Director Yeon Sang-ho does a great job of keeping the story engaging and interesting with various subplots and challenges. At some points in the film, you just think, why can’t they all just work together. Working together will reap bigger rewards. At the same time, it is these tensions that make the film interesting. As the train hurdled towards Busan, a Korean city at its southern tip, I had my doubts about whether there was any safe haven left for the characters particularly as the film kept showing hordes of zombies at each destination. Fortunately, the director does provide some light at the end of the tunnel.
The parallels between this film and the real world are striking. You have people wanting to care for others and then other people seeking self preservation and enrichment. With a spreading plague, the film shows that you need to act quickly and together to deal with the threat. When you are on your own, you have little chance of survival, but when you work together with everyone, you can survive and protect the ones you care about. The moral of the film is that you should protect others and focus on what’s important to you. That is usually your friends and family. (No one wants to be a Yon-suk, wealthy and friendless.)
Train to Busan is thrilling film that is currently streaming on Netflix. I have watched heaps of zombie films and Train to Busan still felt like a burst of fresh air. It is a well told story and its positive critical reception is no exaggeration.