After seeing Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress last month, I never thought that I would soon be having another dose of zombies and trains. Then I caught much positive buzz about this new South Korean zombie film that premiered earlier this year at the Cannes, Train to Busan. And to my delighted surprise, it has been shown recently (and is still being shown as of writing) in Philippine theaters.
Train to Busan tells the story of a group of passengers on a bullet train to Busan, who suddenly find themselves in the middle of a zombie outbreak. Apparently, South Korea is rapidly ravaged, and their train’s intended destination is seemingly the last safe zone. The train passengers are left with no choice but to fight through hordes of zombies, and hope for the best that refuge can indeed be found in Busan.
Train to Busan is an extremely well-made zombie movie – probably the best from Asia. It does have clichés – plot points, plot devices, and character archetypes that are generally found in a zombie film. But it’s just that, through the years, tons of zombie movies have been made already, and I’ve seen tons of them, that it can’t be helped but notice these patterns. Nevertheless, these things might be familiar, even formulaic, but they are utilized and executed in the story in a well-written manner, making Train to Busan a genuinely unique, clever, and exhilarating zombie film.
And like the best of zombie movies, Train to Busan brilliantly explores how a zombie apocalypse will eventually turn people into monsters, regardless of having been bitten or not. A mix of fear and desperate self-preservation can easily drive people to commit acts of selfishness, irrationality, indifference, indecency, and even cruelty. It’s what makes this theme deliciously ironic in the context of a zombie outbreak: that in their self-centered desire to avoid being turned into a zombie, to remain “human”, they relinquish their humanity.
Hence, the zombie apocalypse is a fantastic analogy for a terrifying, severely stressful, and (most importantly) unfamiliar catastrophe, making it a terrific glimpse on how human nature and society as a whole behave in such event. It really brings out the worst in people.
On the other hand, a zombie apocalypse – or any catastrophe for that matter – can also bring the best in people. It makes people realize what’s really important in life, like love and family. Heroism and self-sacrifice can unexpectedly emerge from anyone – even among the weakest, least skilled, and most afraid. And sometimes, even those who are inherently selfish may learn selflessness.
Train to Busan wonderfully tackles all these things to perfection.
The characters are somewhat stereotypical for a zombie movie. But this is just a price to pay for the purpose of conveying a thought-provoking social commentary through a zombie apocalypse tale. Besides, they are so likable, well-realized, and well-acted – particularly the character Sang-hwa (played by Ma Dong-seok).
As what it needs to be and what it intends to be, Train to Busan feels perfect. The direction is top-notch, and the narrative is paced superbly. It’s full of excellent action-packed set pieces. But it surprisingly has great drama, too. In fact, there’s as much feels in it as thrills – as well as a good amount of laughs.
My only nitpick – a teeny-weeny one – is that the zombie makeup isn’t that believably good. But that’s the vigorous performances and impressively flexible contortions (or CGI?) of the zombie actors easily compensates for it.
To sum it up, Train to Busan is tremendously fun. I never had a dull moment with it. It’s smart, thrilling, touching, funny, and emotionally satisfying – it’s quite a well-rounded movie. Heck, it even might be an actual masterpiece.