Train to Busan: Engaging, despite offering nothing new

It is incredible how quickly Train to Busan gets you to care about its characters. They are all archetypes, and none of their names register. This is how I remember some of them: gusty, funny guy with pregnant wife (Ma Dong-seok), selfish father (Gong Yoo), little girl with parental issues (Kim Su-an), homeless man (Choi Gwi-hwa), flirtatious students (Choi Woo-shik and Ahn So-hee)… But these general labels are what we’d have likely slapped on them if we’d travelled along in that cursed train to Busan even as South Korea slowly turns into zombieland for no apparent reason.

Genre: Thriller
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an, Kim Eui-sung
Storyline: A group of people are travelling to Busan in a train. So are zombies.
Duration: 118 minutes

Train to Busan brings absolutely nothing new to the zombie genre, but it shows that lack of novelty needn’t be a handicap at all. It has everything you’d expect in a zombie film: The close calls, the mass slaughters, the long chases. A lot of it is quite beautifully shot. A crucial shot of a self-sacrificing man is shown as a shadow… a dark figure of a man who, during the course of the film, manages to turn to light. The film is full of such delicious ironies. A man who isn’t allowed entry into a train compartment by another finds the tables turned later in the film. A homeless man, viewed throughout with suspicion by the other characters, is the reason two upper-class women survive. A woman who’s expecting a child is forced by circumstances to accept another. A girl whose singing falters on account of her father’s lack of support, sings her best when he’s gone forever. Such symmetry in writing doesn’t happen accidentally.

The film is more World War Z than Zombieland. It seeks to thrill; the laughs are very few, like the scene in which a man frustrated at the zombie’s rabid need to bite, shouts, “Are you crazy?!” I wish there had been more such moments, but what it lacks for in amusement, it makes up for in depth — a selfish man, for instance, is forced to destroy himself for a greater good — and some generic albeit sapid commentary on class struggle.

“Rich people that side. Let’s head this way. Zombies are safer.”

From very early on, when the security try to force out a homeless man from the train, there’s a strong thread of ‘us versus them’ that permeates the film’s universe. In another scene, a father and daughter try to use connections to save themselves, but are ill at ease to learn that the homeless man joins them. If it was their own, another person of their ilk, they probably wouldn’t have been. Towards the end, it even blows over into a full-scale struggle in which the people holed up in a compartment—the comfortable people—refuse to grant entry to another group, suspecting them to be potentially dangerous. So strong is their distaste for this other that they take great pains to lock the door blocking them first before turning their attention to the zombies. So deep runs this mistrust that even zombies seem like the lesser evil. It’s rather revealing that the biggest villain, and in a film that is full of blood-thirsty zombies no less, is a rich man who leads this group against the other.

I wish the women in Train to Busan had had more to do instead of being deadweight in need of rescue. It’s the men who land the punches, and swing the baseball bats. It’s the men who come up with ideas too. Even when a girl’s singing eventually saves the situation, it’s utterly accidental. A strong woman would’ve completed Train to Busan’s world quite satisfactorily.

The Korean film is dubbed in English, a bothersome quality that seems less distracting as the movie goes on. But I’d rather that they have just played the Korean film with subtitles. Why take the trouble of dubbing a film, when a large part of the dialogue is primal screams and guttural roars?

This review was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Zara says:

    You didn’t find lots of funny moments in it? I thought it had lots of moments that blended humour with suspense. I thoroughly agree with the women being pretty useless. It does enforce gender roles…
    I watched a version with subtitles, rather than one which was dubbed and I think that might have something to do with how much one enjoys the movie.
    Gong Yoo in The Age of Shadows is on a train again – and being pursued, again!
    If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d recommend it.


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