Writer-director Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, which largely takes place aboard a high-seed KTX train traveling from Seoul to Busan in the midst of a zombie outreak, is so nakedly hospitable to conservative attitudes that one may come to resent its strikingly creative and efficiently orchestrated maximalist frights. During the film’s elegantly staged opening, a man passing through a toll booth turned quarantine zone is so distracted by his phone, as well as by his contempt for the officials in hazmat suits who surely must be downplaying the seeming severity of the quarantine situation, that he runs over a deer. As the man drives off, the camera pans slowly to the right and reveals the deer jolting itself back to life, its glazed-over eyes representing both a promise of countless horrors to come and a confirmation of the man’s assertion that his government’s agents are “so full shit.”
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan‘s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games.
Train to Busan‘s macro frights, such as a freakish chase sequence wherein a horde of zombies unconsciously exhibit the behavior of colonial organisms, are no less impressive than Yeon’s staging of micro ones, primarily for how they shun conventional jump-scare tactics. When Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), board the train to Busan, where Seok-woo’s estranged wife is now living, an infected woman scurries onboard in the split second during which a conductor looks the other way. The moment is so casually presented as to hardly register at all. And as the train pulls away from the station, Soo-an barely glimpses from a window as someone crashes into and pushes a conductor to the ground. In one stylishly tossed-off beat, the girl’s fears of estrangement and uncertainty are effectively conflated with the audience’s certainty of this train’s doom.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ignore Train to Busan‘s almost punishing devotion to formula. In between skirmishes with zombies, the train’s survivors dutifully corroborate their bona fides as stock genre types. Seok-woo is fund manager whose “bloodsucking” ways are understood by Sang-ha (Ma Dong-seok), a working-class bruiser on board the train with his pregnant wife, Sung-gyeong (Jung Yu-mi), to be consistent with how he only thinks of himself in the heat of the moment. Soon-an even takes her father to task, blaming the selfishness of his actions for his separation from her mother. The film sees Seok-woo as being one step away from the totalistic and cartoonish villainy of the bus-company executive played by Kim Eui-sung, and the zombie apocalypse as a means for Seok-woo to reconnect with what the filmmaker seems to believe is the man’s essential goodness.
Train to Busan treats, like San Andreas before it, a cataclysmic event as a backdrop to the restoration of a nuclear family—or something close to approaching one. The film’s drive toward a conventional sense of closure, executed with a clean sense of movement reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s work, becomes impossible to separate from a series of essentially socio-political talking points that suggest a nation’s ever-increasing embrace of capitalistic values has unhinged its populace from the salt-of-the-earth ethos of an idyllic past. And yet, because everyone’s reminiscences about how things used to be, delivered in service to remind Seok-woo of his capacity for empathy, are so culturally unspecific, it’s easy to see hypocrisy in how Yeon so scrupulously serves up Train to Busan as a calling card.