Train to Busan is a South Korean zombie movie. The bulk of the movie takes place on the high-speed train, the KTX, as it leaves from Seoul to Busan.
The zombies in the movie are reminiscent of the ones in the cinematic version of World War Z or 28 Days. They are a strong and swift horde that engulfs anyone in their path, spreading the sickness within seconds of being bitten. In the realm of zombies, Train to Busan doesn’t offer anything new. As an audience, we have seen these types of zombies before. But the other aspects, like the pacing and characters that make it a blockbuster.
The pacing of the movie is well done. The outbreak doesn’t happen suddenly, rather it builds into the catastrophe.
The scene opens with a sense of the dread, in what looks like a government cover up. A farmer complains to an official about his dead livestock and he runs over a deer that reanimates. The main character Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) glances at an article about massive amounts of dead fish. And as he drives to the Seoul train station with his daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an) so she can visit her mother in Busan. A stream of fire engines and ambulances speed past them and what seems to be ash floats down from the sky.
Then a rapid succession of incidents happens. It builds up to a sick woman with a tourniquet on her leg shuffling down the aisle of the train, until she falls and convulses. An attendant tries to help her but it is the beginning of the end. The woman bites the attendant and all hell breaks loose. It becomes a nonstop fight for survival for the main characters, with zombies both on and off the train, to get to the destination of Busan which is safe from the zombie outbreak. So it becomes of a thrill ride of watching to see if the main characters survive the ordeal.
The story’s focus is on Seok-woo the main lead. But what is interesting is that he is not a necessarily a good man but grows into one. In the beginning, he is a fund manager that works too much and pays little attention to Su-an. But he’s humanized because he does love her.
So, in reality, he is quite opposite to the CEO Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung) who is a deplorable human beginning to end. Unlike Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) who comes off a bit rough but who is a hero in the face of danger. Seok-woo learns to be a better person because of Sang-hwa who is someone his daughter can look up to.
The introduction to the other characters besides Seok-woo and Su-an is brief. But even with such brief introductions, there is an immediate sense of the personalities. It only becomes even more evident as the movie goes on. Virtues and faults get magnified as the characters deal with the zombie hordes.
Yon-suk is someone that society tells people to look up to and praise because he is a successful businessman, but he is a little more than a monster himself.
While Sang-hwa, who is of lower social standing, is someone that society tells to strive to be better. But Sang-hwa and even the homeless man are heroes in the narrative.
There is underlying social commentary in the movie. As the story goes on, a second enemy appears. It is people themselves. I’m not sure whether the director meant to do this or not. People become the other adversary in the movie and the cause of catastrophic.
The people become irrational and follow like sheep as they try to save themselves. The other survivors, besides the main cast, decide to listen to Yon-suk the CEO because of his higher social standing or because he knows how to play into other people’s fears and exploit them. The other survivors listen even though all he cares about is his own survival. The people eventually become the worst of themselves.
The government covers up the problem does little to warn the populace of the crisis at hand. Government officials lie to minimize the problem. Then, the outbreak happens and officials tell the populace to keep calm. The movie has a striking resemblance to the 2015 MERS outbreak in South Korea.
Train to Busan is a fast paced zombie thriller. It is also a simple story of a father try to get his daughter to Busan in the face of a catastrophe. He has a few allies but more enemies, both zombie, and human alike. It’s a critique that there should be some government transparency. And that a person should not listen to certain types of people just because of their social standing. Rather, think for yourself and see if they are worth listening to.
A big theme in the movie is that people can become heroes and listen to their better natures, though it may be hard to do at times. There is might be little recognition in the heroics of it all but it will be remembered by the ones that matter.