Spilled brains on a bullet train: a review of ‘Train to Busan’

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Recent years have seen an over-saturation of the zombie movie genre. Every time Hollywood churns out another cookie-cutter zombie thriller, the viewers eat it up, yet the film often fails to garner exceptional critical praise. Despite this trend, Train to Busan, directed by Sangho Yeon, has become an indisputable commercial and critical success. Though there is skillful integration of classic zombie movie gore, the focus of the movie is more on the human characters and their development throughout the film.

In terms of its main plot, Train to Busan is not particularly original. The movie takes place in Korea, where there have been outbreaks of a virus that turns people into mindless killing machines. The movie follows the journey of a train on which one such outbreak has taken place, and the protagonists attempt to make it to Busan where a haven has been established.

Admittedly, this was the selling point of the movie for initial moviegoers. The claustrophobia created by the confined space of the KTX box cars accompanied by the looming ominous threat of the deadly virus struck a nerve with many Koreans, especially after the recent MERS scare. However, it is inaccurate to say that the only thing going for this movie is that it is World War Z on a train. While many other zombie movies have relied solely on cheap jump scares and gory computer graphics, Train to Busan makes sure to elevate the tension in a way that makes the viewer recoil in suspense and never includes any unnecessary violence or gore. The execution is seamless and the movie’s momentum keeps the viewers simultaneously wanting to look away and dying to find out what happens next.

However, Train to Busan’s true forte reveals itself as the plot itself develops. The film is structured into five subplots; each of the five subplots tells a story through the perspective of five different groups of people in same predicament. The catch is that they all have different backgrounds and motives. The first subplot is in the perspective of a businessman, the protagonist, who is travelling to Busan as his neglected daughter pines to see her divorced mother. Through their interactions, viewers see the unyielding bond of a father and daughter relationship.

The second subplot tells the story of a recently married couple; the wife deep into the third trimester, and in doing so the couple epitomizes the extent of love and dedication. The third perspective is of a high school boy and girl who end up being forced into grisly maturation. The fourth subplot is of a pair of elderly women, who characterize the cynicism of survival in a chaotic predicament. Finally, the fifth subplot tells the story of a greedy, selfish businessman who intentionally puts the lives of others in jeopardy to guarantee his own survival. Although this web of character plots seems overwhelming, in no way does it take away from the intensity of the overall movie as each subplot is told masterfully in a seamless manner. The social commentary on human nature, displayed in each of these storylines, hits its mark subtly but surely.

Whatever your stance is on brain munching and spastic cadavers, the mastery over the elements of film holds the standard of zombie movies to a whole different level. The success of this movie in the cinematic market, both nationally and internationally, marks a triumph not only for Korean films but also for the zombie genre overall.

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Jeremiah Nam

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