Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.
This week, a father and daughter try to survive an outbreak on a speeding train in Train to Busan.
It’s All About Sacrifice Isn’t It?
When an outbreak of violence erupts across South Korea, a KTX train to Busan may be the safest place for Seok-woo and his daughter Soo-an. One infected passenger will change that. All hell is about to break loose. And getting to Busan will become the least of their worries. Welcome aboard Train to Busan.
Will You Stay With Me?
I’m not trying to be cryptic by using the words ‘outbreak’ and ‘infected’. If you’re anything like me, you’re a little wary of the ‘Z’ word at this point. And for good reason. Big screens and small have mined the genre within an inch of its undead life for the past decade plus – hitting a particular low point with last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s with great hesitation that I use the ‘Z’ word with Train to Busan, mostly because I don’t want to scare too many of you away. But here goes nothing … yes, Train to Busan is a zombie movie.
Still with me? Good. ‘Cause Train to Busan is a really good zombie movie. One that pits the fragile morality of everyday people against a flesh-hungry, undead horde. It does so in the claustrophobic confines of a high-speed train. That may sound a little gimmicky. In certain ways it is. But a speeding train proves an enthralling setting for a zombie massacre. Writer/Director Yeon Sang-ho builds the suspense around that locale in marvelous ways.
The film opens quietly enough with a rural province in South Korea being quarantined after a chemical spill. A precarious moment involving roadkill tells us something a bit more ominous is happening. We soon meet Seok-woo and his daughter. Their relationship is strained. Seok-woo works too much. And he’s separated from Soo-an’s mother. After Seok-woo drops the ball on Soo-an’s birthday gift, a trip to see Mom in Busan is the only way to make it up to her.
Seok-woo and Soo-an make their train just as the effects of that ‘chemical spill’ make their way to the city. Passengers watch in horror – via youtube videos and on board TV – as chaos reigns supreme. It’s only a matter of time before it overtakes the train. When it does, well, hold on to your hats ’cause Train to Busan escalates from nervy joyride to full-throttle bloodletting in a matter of seconds. And Yeon makes devastating use of the confining locale. Kills come fast, they come furious, they come up close, and they come personal.
Of course, savvy filmgoers will spot the influences of films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Snowpiercer (2013) in Train to Busan‘s narrative. But Yeon manages to pilfer the strongest elements of those films – the hyperactive immediacy of 28 Days and the close-quartered brutality of Snowpiercer – to craft his own compelling narrative.
He populates that narrative with a rich cast of characters. There’s a timid baseball player and his flirty girlfriend, a geriatric pair of bickering sisters, a self-involved business man, and a macho blue-blood with pregnant wife in tow. Combined with Seok-woo and Soo-an, those characters might feel a little cliché. But Yeon imbues them with just enough detail to make each one feel like fully formed being with his or her own reason to fight for survival.
Not all of them will fight. Not all of them will survive. You’ve seen enough zombie movies to know that already. Throughout the film, Yeon never fails to find inventive ways of dispatching with characters big and small. Some go in a hail of fury, others in service of the greater good. We feel each loss in different ways. But we always feel it. After all, it’s the human element that makes zombie fiction such an effective genre. Train to Busan never loses sight of that. And it won’t let you forget it.
You bet. Train to Busan doesn’t quite redefine the zombie genre. But it’s inventive, it’s energetic, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. That puts it miles ahead of most zombie fiction of late. One dollar is as good a price as you’ll find for a ride like this. On a side note, the Other $0.99 Movie this week is Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon – which was one of the few bright spots of Summer 2016. It’s brutal and sexy and bloody as hell. It features one of last year’s best soundtracks. And it’ll make a hell of a double feature with Train to Busan. Not bad for a couple of bucks.