What is it with zombies? I don’t watch The Walking Dead. I don’t get all fidgety waiting for the next zombie apocalypse video game. And I certainly don’t queue up to see the latest action-packed, gore-spattered, plucky regular-guys facing walls of crazed, offal-eating zombies.
A friend recommended a movie that came out of South Korea last year. She loved it. What’s it about? Zombies. Ohforcryinoutloud. Zombies? South Korean zombies?
It’s really good, she said. You’ll love it.
[sigh] — OK …
South Korean cinema and I have had an ongoing conversation for the past few years. (You can read a couple of my previous reviews of KR films here and here.) The main issue I have with the KR oeuvre is, well, I worry about the folks who live in South Korea.
South Korean cinema produces a lot of extremely high quality films, usually imbued with a quirky sense of humor and some really offbeat storytelling. I’ve seen KR monster movies, thrillers, action movies, and a rom-com cum slasher film that left me giggling and creepified in equal measure.
In each one, however, there is a strong undercurrent of despair that I find disturbing and that makes me worry for the work-a-day folks. Judging by the portrayals in their movies, everyone is overworked. Everyone is wracked with interwoven plaits of guilt, duty, and obligation — to company, to country, to family, usually in that order — and the ambient stress and the continuous paring away of their individuality, well, it just breaks my heart, every time.
But a zombie movie? I mean, the office worker-bees in KR films are already sufficiently zombified by long hours and impossible goals. How would their movie zombies differ?
As the movie begins, we meet an overworked, checked-out, divorced father who is dealing with the competing demands of work and his young daughter’s impending birthday. He tries to handle both, but work comes first. Faced with evidence of his poor performance as a father, he tries to make up for it and gives his daughter the one thing she wants for her birthday: a train trip to Busan to visit her mother (his ex-wife). At ten years old, the daughter is too young to travel alone, so Dad has to (gasp!) take a few hours off work and take her there on the high-speed train. They board and, as the train pulls out of the station in Seoul, violence erupts in the city.
Cue zombie apocalypse.
There are a lot of standard zombie movie tropes in Train to Busan — a band of strangers, thrown together by circumstance, each with individual strengths and weaknesses, face a mindless horde bent on their total annihilation — but these tropes are laid down with enough of a twist that it doesn’t feel like a rehash of every other zombie flick ever made. As the action careens down the tracks, our gutsy heroes use their wits and their wiles — and the occasional baseball bat — to evade, overcome, and survive. Well, some do, anyway.
South Korean zombies, it turns out, aren’t of the shambling, slack-jawed variety. Rather, they’re of the crazed, frenetic, coffee-brewed-with-Red-Bull, 100-yard dash winning, run you down like a pack of feral dogs … type. In my view, these zombies embody the release of the pent-up rage that resides beneath every worker’s calm demeanor and struggles beneath everyone’s overwhelming sense of duty. Ravenous, frantic, destructive, uncaring, obsessed with self, they are, in this movie, the Korean id, unleashed.
The movie is well paced and well structured. By placing the action on a moving train, writer/director Sang-ho Yeon has interesting opportunities for tension and suspense, all set within a finite space. The characters are varied and shed their cardboard cutout selves as their attitudes and backstories are revealed. The acting — not a high priority for such movies — ranges from good to excellent, with ten-year-old Soo-an Kim (as the daughter who wants to visit her mother on her birthday) providing a heart-wrenching standout performance. The special effects are top-notch, and heighten the sense of horror without calling attention to their presence.
So, though I don’t care for zombies, I did enjoy this movie. Quite a bit, in fact.
I still worry for the South Koreans, though. I just want to give them all a hug and tell them it’ll all be okay. Even if it won’t.
Because … zombies, y’know?