2016, Movies

Busanhaeng [Train to Busan] (2016, Sang-ho Yeon)

This is a Korean zombie film whose claim to fame is that it takes place primarily on a train. This is the first combination of the train film with the zombie film that I’m aware of. So that part’s fresh.

I was once a massive zombie film aficionado. I don’t know why exactly I stopped, whether it’s age or the existence of things like The Walking Dead, but I don’t watch nearly as many zombie films as I used to. But I’ve seen a lot and, as a result, I have expectations.

I feel like this film doesn’t really honour the zombie film tradition as it should, in at least two ways. First, it’s not clear exactly why most people turn within seconds but some take minutes or even longer. It seems like if you’re bit on the neck you turn instantly but if you are bit on the hand or leg, you don’t. But the movie never makes that explicitly clear. Also, as in so many of these films, there’s never any idea that you could have an open sore somewhere or a scratch and turn. That just never comes up. The movie spends no time on this stuff. It assumes: we all know what zombies are, just go with it. But zombies behave differently in different properties and we the viewers need to know the rules.

The other thing it misses is the zombie kills. I’d argue a huge part of most zombie properties is watching living humans kill zombies, in many cases it’s part of the fun. Here they, um, beat them up a little bit. And it’s weird. Maybe this is part of how this film stands out for people but it’s less fun when it’s just punching and hitting and there the zombies basically never die (on screen). What’s more, the film never establishes the rules of how you can kill a zombie. Is that more realistic that other zombie films? Maybe. But it’s part of the tradition.

All I’m saying is, if you’re going to make a film in a genre with extremely well-established tropes, you need to either honour those tropes or mock them. I don’t think ignoring them is a good choice unless you do it really, really well.

This makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy myself and that’s not true. It was reasonably entertaining. I laughed a few times. Some of the physical acting was quite good.

The CGI hasn’t aged well, the score is over the top, it’s clear they reused the same train yard more than once, and it’s too long. But, otherwise, the film is well-made. And the conceit is neat. (I do wonder how much the positive reviews were influenced by the relative paucity of train films and how they seem to be coming back in vogue.) I just think it’s not for me.


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