Today I’ve got two hot films from Korea, including one of the biggest Horror movies of the year. It’s going to be a good day.
But before we start, I have to talk about an unfortunate parallel. Our first movie, Train to Busan, is fictional Horror about zombies on a train headed to one of South Korean’s biggest cities. But this October, the real Busan was struck by a massive typhoon. If you have any spare money, please consider donating to relief efforts.
For all the buzz this has gotten as Korean revitalizing the zombie genre, I’m almost surprised to report that Train to Busan is… just another zombie movie. There is no great innovation in Horror or change to the zombie formula in this movie. Instead, it’s two hours of people stuck on a train, trying to fend off zombies from the rear cars. If somehow you are craving more zombie-smashing and tragic losses of survivors, then this is for you.
The biggest change to the formula is that Seok-Woo is stranded on the train with his young daughter Su-an, and must risk his life to keep her safe. If that doesn’t sound like a change in formula from The Walking Dead, then you’ll understand why this movie doesn’t seem revolutionary.
The weirdest part is how many moments of “heartbreaking loss” the cast goes through, almost all accompanied by sincere piano music. It never realizes that the audience will eventually be desensitized to yet another person has succumbed to what people in zombie movies always succumb to. Although even there, at least two of the deaths are remarkably shot, and one borders on the romantic.
Its entertainment value comes mostly from Song-Hwa, an expecting father who’s clearly broken a few legs in his day, and gruffly wrestles his way through the train’s aisles with little more than masking tape protecting his arms from bites. He will do anything to ensure his wife and baby-to-be arrive safely, and leads some cracking fight scenes. When scenes really ramp up, dozens of zombies flood the screen for overkill that reminds one of Brad Pitt’s World War Z. There are great scenes of survivor squads desperately trying to clear a car, or sneaking across the luggage racks as the train goes through a tunnel, trying to reach the door before the zombies can see again and stir.
At this point in our cultural overload, I don’t love or hate zombies at this point. There’s room for more great stories around them, and I can still enjoy a perfectly okay zombie movie. Train to Busan is the latter: a perfectly okay zombie movie. If you’re still looking forward to it, I just recommend adjusting your expectations.
I re-watched this after Train to Busan just to contrast the two, and Flu holds up as better at almost everything Train to Busan tries to do. As the title suggests, Flu is about a viral outbreak that begins killing people at a terrifying rate. It requires a massive quarantine, and unflinchingly shows what such outbreaks entail, including the death of loved ones, fights among people stuck in heavily policed zones, and parents hiding the illness of children to spare them from being burned. The sight of a sports stadium being turned into a mass grave is going to disturb some people.
The bodies never rise from the dead. Instead this movie is rooted in the fear of contagion, and in how hard it is for people to lose loved ones in such circumstances. You don’t watch a child simply grow ill; you watch her mother trying to shelter, hide, and care for her as police in hazmat suits patrol around her. Like Train to Busan, the parent-child protection dynamic is a big element, as is a small community of semi-altruists trying to look out for each other. There’s more humanity to this than Train to Busan or even Contagion.
It’s also up there with Contagion for grappling with what authority does when things are this grim. There’s a subplot dedicated to what South Korea’s leaders plan to help, and the pressures they get from foreign leaders who fear the new strain of flu jumping borders. All along, you’re begging these people to wait another hour until scientists can find some kind of cure.