MF 340 : Summer movie series: Train to Busan (2016)
Updated: Jun 19
Today, I kick off a summer series of great movies to add to your must see list, starting with Train to Busan (2016). More at www.bemovingforward.com.
Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.
A zombie film that isn't brain dead
When it comes to horror movies, I'm a fan of the classics from the 80s and 90s. Everything from Friday the 13th to The Nightmare on Elm Street series. The once terrifying staples of my childhood are now nostalgia trips to the halcyon days before the world experienced events that are far more scary than anything these fictional boogeymen showcased on screen.
Zombie films have an interesting history as a subgenre. George Romero is often considered the father or grandfather of it with his original Living Dead trilogy and its later spinoffs. Later, shows like The Walking Dead pushed it into the cultural zeitgeist during the early 2010s. However, in 2021, we've become inundated with a glut of zombie movies and shows, ranging from high budget fares like Zach Snyder's recent Army of the Dead to low budget films that seem to crop up like a mass of the undead on Amazon Prime. I watched and enjoyed Army of the Dead a few weeks ago but didn't feel it offered anything truly fresh or new to the table. I went into Train to Busan mildly skeptical. It was hard to imagine that yet another zombie entry could offer anything original or invigorating. Moreover, at a two hour run time, I was worried that it would drag.
I happily admit, I was wrong.
Train to Busan came out in 2016 and was a smash hit in South Korea but did not receive a wide theatrical release in the US. However, it caught the attention of many diehard horror and zombie aficionados and like the fictional infestation showcased within, it spread through word of mouth. Then, in mid-late 2020, the film found its way onto Netflix and caught like wildfire, introducing new audiences to the delights of Korean horror cinema.
Train to Busan is a fantastic movie and wisely uses its two hours without any wasted space. The film takes it times to develop its human characters so that you get invested in their problems and their stories. In an alternate universe, this would have been a complex drama about family relationships set aboard a high speed train. However, add a zombie outbreak and you have something truly magical: a group of unlikely characters that come together to survive. While the premise isn't original, its execution makes this a worthwhile investment of your time.
The problem with many zombie and horror films is that they spend too much time on the gory effects, gruesome violence, and "shock and awe" scenes to give you that adrenaline bump. Train to Busan certainly has great set pieces along with an excellent visual feast of practical and CG effects. However, the strength in the film lies its human characters. In my opinion, this is what made The Walking Dead such a success during its first 6 seasons. Train to Busan manages to do this in a single film with rich characters you become invested in. While the pace is non-stop, the movie doesn't sacrifice character development for spectacle. The payoff comes in well earned emotional reactions as you watch these people navigate this calamity.
Moreover, you'll find within these characters, familiar themes that have played out over the past year and half as we have navigated the current pandemic. However, unlike a movie about a pandemic, Train to Busan isn't so on the nose as to be a downer or a chore to watch. Viewers can still detach themselves enough to enjoy it as a thrill ride.
Finally, I encourage you to check this out if you've never seen a subtitled film before. Often, people will shy away from international films for reasons I've never understood. Your brain will adjust within the first minute of reading the subtitles and the story, characters, and execution will more than make the reading worth the effort. Or, you can just watch without reading the subtitles. Several YouTubers have commented that the you can follow the movie just by the characters’ expressions and the action on screen. I agree. The acting is top notch with performances that come through with or without dialogue. This is what elevates this film into something more than simply another mindless zombie movie.
Excellent characters with top notch performances: it's the heart of this film.
Wonderful set pieces and special effects, combining practical with CGI.
A confident story that's well paced without any dull or extraneous moments.
Narratively a little confusing at times with some of the minor characters.
Some contrived plot conveniences with a later sequence of tunnels and cell phones working perfectly - this movie would have been that much more perfect if they had at least one character experience a signal problem or a dead battery.
These are minor nitpicks and do not detract from the overall quality of the film.
**** 1/2 (out of five)
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