With Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite racking up Oscar accolades and bringing renewed attention to Korean cinema, it felt like the perfect time to watch another film that I’ve had my eye on. Like a good horror movie, Train to Busan explains its premise just enough for us to jump right into the story; an absentee father promises to bring his daughter to see her mother in Busan for her birthday, but not everything is as it seems. Tension begins to ramp up as a sickly woman flings herself onto the train just as it’s about to depart, only to be followed by a swarm of zombies rushing the train platform.
Like Parasite and Snowpiercer, Train to Busan delves deep into the struggles of class and politics while also telling a thrilling tale. In fact, the similarities between the two most popular train-based Korean films to break into the international market are hard to ignore. Both take place on a train and use the convenient separation of the train cars to both physically and metaphorically distance the characters from one another while taking full advantage of the limited space to create an unnerving sense of claustrophobia.
In terms of the zombies themselves, Train to Busan decides to take the World War Z approach of fast, mindless, and twisted undead who trample over one another in a mass of flesh and rapid hunger. This helps keep the characters and the audience on edge, but the world-building isn’t as internally consistent as it could have been. As the protagonist struggles to understand the situation, I also had a hard time stitching together clues to figure out the origin of the outbreak or even the terms on which the plot was progressing forward. For example, there is a scene that involves soldiers falling out of helicopters, only to rise as zombies a moment later and attack nearby civilians that left me wondering if the whole incident was an accident or a direct attack by weaponized zombies.
As the story and train get moving, plot points slowly fall into place and become a lot easier to predict. The occupants of the train are widdled down to a small cast of plucky survivors, including a baseball player, a cheerleader, a pregnant woman, and her husband, and a narcissistic COO of some corporation. Although they fit neatly into archetypal horror movie roles, each brings a personality and charm to the film that helps keep it from being just another zombie gorefest.
Where the story diverts from horror tropes, however, also happens to be the film’s weakest point. For a movie that otherwise left little room for sentimentality, I was surprised at the sharp left turn towards the end of the film that plays more like a Korean day-time drama than an apocalyptic horror flick. It suffices to say that Train to Busan desperately wants to tear at your heartstrings, almost to a melodramatic degree. The dragged out ending with borderline nonsensical character decisions and goofy sentimental moments only helped sour what would have otherwise been an outstanding film.
All that being said, the good aspects of Train to Busan are hard to ignore despite its obvious flaws. It’s a zombie flick with a fun premise, interesting characters, and a great sense of pacing that only falters towards the end, long after you’ve stopped caring about the plot. If you’re a zombie/horror fan or want to explore some of what Korean films have to offer, this would be a hard title not to recommend.
Train to Busan is currently streaming on Netflix.