For many genre movies, it is often a challenge to balance storytelling traditions with storytelling innovations. If a film leans into old genre tropes, odds are that the final product will spark little engagement. Meanwhile, if it spends time breaking ground, odds are that it starts straying away from its intended genre. In any case, every approach requires a strong sense of playfulness from the filmmakers. Without it, a potentially delightful time degrades into something devoid of energy. But with it, it can turn even the most simplistic screenplay into something that emotionally engages at every turn. So when I say that Train to Busan is one of the definitive zombie films of the 2010s, know that it is not because of how inventive it is.
In fact, screenwriters Park Joo-suk and Yeon Sang-ho take joy out of using as many horror tropes as possible. Like most zombie movies before it, the film treats the increasing zombie population as if it were a virus. Not only does the outbreak spread by killing off the healthy, but it also shows it manifesting in various creatures. From the opening scene with the zombified deer onward, it uses classic ideas to quickly hook its audience. And with the help of Yeon, who also directs, the movie gradually sketches a scenario that keeps building in intensity.
However, Train to Busan is not satisfied with just applying traditions to the worldbuilding. As it turns out, this is yet another disaster movie about a calamity’s effects on human interactions. In particular, it shows how easily people’s base instincts come to the forefront in a high stakes situation. Among those people is the protagonist Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), who cares so little for others he rushes to get his daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an) a gift that she already has. So once the outbreak hits a train that contains him and Soo-an, not much time passes before his true colors shine.
Of course, Seok-woo is not the only one with a well-defined yet simplistic personality. After all, Park and Yeon give all the other people on the train a stand-out characteristic. To name a few, Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) is The Tough Brute™, Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi) is The Pregnant Wife™, and Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung) is The Mean Skeptic™. More importantly, the filmmakers utilize them in such obvious ways you can easily guess who will be zombie fodder and who will not. It might sound like a spoiler when I say that someone like Seong-kyeong has a high chance of survival. But given its rigid adherence to horror tropes, rest assured it does not feel like one.
With all this in mind, how could a film like Train to Busan be anything other than the most generic zombie film in ages? How is it that I managed to have an utter blast with this movie even with the lack of story ambition? The answer lies within Yeon’s assured direction. In addition to beautifully conveying the widespread chaos of the zombie outbreak, it presents claustrophobic spaces as they are. Specifically, Yeon and cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok only use medium shots and close-ups for scenes on the train so that the setting never feels large. To further convey this contrast, wide shots only appear whenever it wants to show crowds of infected people. As a result, it knows exactly when to feel intimate and when to feel expansive.
The other noteworthy thing about the film’s playfulness is that it often feels like a live-action cartoon. In fact, some of the supporting players have so much personality that their archetypes come off as endearing. Chief among them is Sang-hwa, who spends the majority of the film beating up zombies with his bare hands. Sure, that character is not necessarily three-dimensional, but Ma embodies him so well that it simply does not matter. Thanks to Ma’s wide stature and his brutish voice, Sang-hwa nearly steals the show from everyone else. There are times where tough guys can be just that, and I am happy to say this is one of those times.
If there is one area where Yeon truly makes an impression, it would be in the variety he offers in the major setpieces. For most directors, they would take with the idea of fast zombies and milk it for everything it’s worth. They would not spend the time to think about other ways to make a scene stress-inducing. But for Yeon, fast zombies are just the beginning. In one notable sequence, he wrings out tension from characters traversing through zombies in the dark. Since these zombies cannot see in the dark, the stress comes from the unpredictable environment instead of the fast corpses. And even in the more conventional chases, editor Yang Jin-mo keeps the visual rhythm high without ever rendering it into a blur.
It is rare to see a movie that embraces a formula so much that it justifies the formula’s very existence. While I do wish for greater ambition, I cannot deny that this particular genre exercise succeeds in many areas. The hysteria among its characters is palpable, the creatures are unsettling, and the final scenes are as heartbreaking as they should be. Under normal circumstances, Train to Busan would be a footnote in the annals of horror cinema. But due to Yeon’s sheer willpower, it is instead the platonic ideal of what an “average” zombie movie should be nowadays. – Mark Tan
Train to Busan is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
The film stars Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Su-an, Kim Eui-sung, and Choi Woo-sik.