Train to Busan (2016)

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*. By 2016 we were well past the point of peak zombie, and audiences were looking for something new. Train to Busan seemed to be the ticket, but in the end I don’t think it changed the rules or grew the game.
*. What was there about it that at least seemed different? Well, in the first place these weren’t really zombies. They are more like the afflicted in 28 Days Later, victims of some strange virus and capable of moving at high speed. But zombies (or quasi-zombies) that can run weren’t all that new, and indeed had already gone firmly mainstream in World War Z. What’s more, these zombies (or “zombies”) aren’t especially interesting. They don’t eat people but just bite them and then snarl and growl a lot. Production values are high, but there are no interesting gore effects, which you kind of expect in this genre.

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*. Something else that seemed new was the setting. This is a Korean production, and I guess Korea is exotic enough, at least for people who have never been there. But the zombie outbreak in World War Z actually begins in Korea, and the movie Snowpiercer had been a somewhat similar Korean action flick set on a train. I’d also note that we’d seen zombies on a train as long ago as Horror Express.
*. Perhaps the most interesting twist, which is related to the setting, is the absence of guns. There are some soldiers and police at the beginning and end who are armed to the teeth, but I don’t think we actually see them use any of that firepower. And certainly none of the other characters are packing. Unlike an American zombie movie, the action isn’t punctuated with a bunch of head shots. But this is something that is also characteristic of British zombie films, from The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue to Shaun of the Dead. England being another country with more restrictive gun laws than the U.S.
*. So it’s not all that fresh a zombie flick. When it gets going it manages to hit on most of the staple elements. There are, for example, the hands reaching through doors or windows as the zombies try to break into different cars. This is a motif that’s repeated several times. There’s also a cast that’s drawn from zombie-movie central casting. The young couple. The pregnant woman. The man and his daughter. The coward who keeps getting everyone in trouble. Men are heroic and offer themselves as altruistic sacrifices. Women and children are there to be protected.

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*. I didn’t think the action or suspense scenes were all that well done. Several scenes that could have been more effective are flubbed by the director. I thought the business of the passengers riding the down escalator into the crowd of zombies at the bottom had incredible potential, none of it realized.
*. Another thing missing was any allegorical reading. Reviews suggested that it was a movie inspired by current events in South Korea, but I didn’t see much of that. Indeed, I didn’t see any particular social or political angle to the proceedings at all (unlike, for example, Snowpiercer). I mean, one gets the point that fund managers aren’t good people (they put work ahead of family, and fund dangerous research), but in this movie he’s still the hero.
*. On two separate occasions we hear characters being called a “douche.” At least that’s what the English subtitles say. I wonder how literal a translation “douche” is. I think that’s a rather idiomatic North American expression, isn’t it?

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*. The main thing that separates this one from the rest of the zombie genre is its melodramatic quality. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it a better movie. The second half is very slow and very predictable. A lot of time is spent building up the characters, but they remain types. I didn’t find any of them interesting, and you can guess their ends right from the beginning.
*. There was immediate talk of an English-language remake, and as of this writing one appears to be in the works. I think this might be a good thing, and I’d even offer some free advice. First off, cut half an hour from the run time. There’s no justifying a story this simple taking two hours to tell. Second: give us some interesting zombies and show them eating people or at least doing something shockingly indecent. This is still a zombie movie, isn’t it? Third: if you’re going to build up one villain so much, at least show us how he gets his comeuppance. Don’t just toss him off the train. And finally try to give the audience, which has had its fill of such fare, something new, something beyond just “zombies on a train.” It’s time to give this genre a re-boot, not a remake. A remake will only lead to another dead end.

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