345-Word Reviews: Train to Busan

Train-to-Busan.jpgI’m an avowed Walking Dead quitter, numbed by repetitive gore, missing the satirical bite and morbid world-building of the Romero “Dead” cycle. I’m officially bored of zombie movies, then, but a clever twist of the format can pique my interest every once in a while. Train to Busan certainly grabbed my attention by relocating a very tired concept: putting zombies on a speeding train is an efficient way to create the tension of a confined situation, and the narrative structure of a linear journey towards a possible sanctuary. But unlike Snowpiercer, that other train-based, Korean-directed disaster movie, whose vessel of apocalypse survivors was a self-contained class system, beautifully laid out in hierarchical sequence along the length of its carriages, Train to Busan has little allegorical heft or interest: this train is filled with “types”, who respond to danger in ways that distinguish or dishonour them, but that’s not the same as making them representatives of the ways power relations dictate and delimit action and experience in broader society. train-to-busan-movie-reviewWhat Busan has instead is a wickedly intense first hour, building up the tension inside the familiar and believable cabin spaces [unless you live in Europe or the USA, in which case, you’ll find the comfort and cleanliness of East Asian trains borders on science fiction] and hinting through the windows at the scale of the catastrophe unfolding outside. It is built around the relationship between a distracted, workaholic father and the daughter who yearns for his attention, a touching device that pays off at the conclusion, but is rather formulaic in its message that parenthood is about sacrifice. Once the peril and melodrama are amped up in the final third and the zombie combat begins to border on the superheroic, much of the dramatic pressure dissipates into the cliches of vehicular action cinema.
The best zombie movies indulge conflicting urges in us all: even as they tease our instinctive fears of mass-panic situations, they let us safely game-theorize possible escape routes. We gawp at disaster, while imagining ways to reconstruct society in renewed forms. Train to Busan is too slick to be completely unsettling, too narrowly focused to be enduringly thought-provoking, but it excited me for most of its running time.

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