Shallow Graves: Train to Busan

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Train to Busan (2016)

Director:  Sang-ho Yeon

By my rough estimation I’d say we’ve spent the last three quarters of a decade hunkered down in full scale zombie movie fatigue. Studios and film makers seem to know this as well, and whenever the two become self aware in these cases it usually kicks off an irreversible disaster I like to call the ‘gimmick stage.’ It’s the point when a familiar conceit has been worn so thin it becomes transparent, opening the door for just about any wacky idea to be thrown at the wall in hopes of sticking, before eventually a revolutionary vision swings it back around for another moment in the sun. A good example of this would be Wes Craven’s Scream and how it resurrected the Slasher subgenre from the depths.

So, while we horror fans are in the dregs of zombie movie fatigue we have to sift a little more diligently to find those little gems crafted by enterprising film makers within a tired subgenre, this includes a movie like Train to Busan.

On the surface Train to Busan is no different than other gimmicky films, however, Director Sang-ho Yeon wrings out the most of his zombies on a train conceit delivering a high energy endeavor that flows from one fully realized set piece to the next. It’s laid out with a fast paced rhythm and a simple, albeit sappy, story core that keeps the wheels firmly rolling along the tracks (my only train pun, I promise).

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As the percolations of the zombie outbreak begin to bubble to the surface we’re introduced to a terrible father named Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) and his precocious young daughter Soo-an (Su-an Kim). Seok-woo is the kind of father that misses his daughter’s recitals, and buys her birthday gifts she already has, mostly because he’s a self-centered dick who doesn’t pay attention, thus setting up the arc of a man learning what it means to be a father. It takes a predictable route too, hitting all the redemptive story beats along the way, but, it’s an effective emotional catalyst for the action, mostly because it’s played with such sincerity. It’s also refreshing to see a zombie film that isn’t so nihilistic, for a change, yes it does have many of the bleak social analogies and metaphors typical in zombie movies, and they’re hammered home with a sledgehammer, but it doesn’t weigh the film down, instead the emotional redemptive story and the zombie action complement each other in a Spielbergian way, dulling the blunt force of the social commentary.

Most impressive is Yeon’s understanding that if you’re going to put zombies on a train you have to use the space at maximum, and he uses every last inch of it, including a sequence where passengers have to fight through cars full of zombies to rescue loved ones several cars ahead. The scenes of hand to hand combat with the zombies are brutally entertaining, if not a little too reminiscent of another film by a Korean film maker, Joon-ho Bong, Snowpiercer. Where it gets really good is when the action slows down and the passengers come across a car they can’t just muscle through. They’re forced to use their wits to pass up, over, and around the zombies, including using sound to distract the monsters while they’re temporarily blinded in the dark of the train tunnels.

Now, being a traditionalist, I like my baseball without a DH and my zombies to slowly shamble, but, the sprinting zombies in Busan are a welcome take, and feel like the instinctive choice given the setting. I’m not sure why, but slow zombies on a train just sound less appealing. Here, the speed of the zombies somehow blend perfectly with the momentum of the train, and the fast, sudden deaths of their victims replace the slow suffocating inevitable of traditional zombies.

Train to Busan is one of those rare occurrences in movies when a film maker manages to elevate an idea above a gimmicky conceit to create a wholly satisfying experience, and somehow does so without resorting to any self aware nods to the audience but with a sincere craftiness difficult not to admire.

-James Merolla

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