While there are rumors going round about a sequel to World War Z, I would stress any director of that supposed sequel to put on Train to Busan, and study this film to understand how to make a focused, exciting zombie film that doesn’t devolve into a directionless mess.
Train to Busan works perfectly as a zombie film. Why? Because it is set in a very difficult, limiting location: that of a train. The humans are stuck and have to fight their way from wagon to wagon. All the while, the train itself moves across Korea, so we get an inkling of the widespread disaster that is going on in the wider world.
You see, zombie films always aim to balance a small-scale personal story about a main character’s fight against zombies, while communicating the large scale of the zombie outbreak at the same time. In the classic Dawn of the Dead (1978), civilians are holed up in a shopping mall – a great limited location for a zombie film. In contrast, in World War Z (2013), we move all over the world with Brad Pitt to see how the zombie outbreak is affecting the entire world. Train to Busan finds a perfect balance in the middle.
The film is just very focused in all its facets. There are neither too few nor too many characters, but the perfect handful to follow and care about. The action is nicely choreographed and accompanied by excellent camerawork. Some shots are exactly right; exactly placed to enhance the emotional impact. One scene in particular struck me, when we follow a crowd down some stairs and escalators, and the camera floats down together with the people, only to share with us a slow but sudden revelation which the characters are also seeing at the same time. Nicely done!
The main heroes of the film are dads. One is a businessman who is estranged from his daughter and wife. He’s pretty much living an emotionless life, like he is a zombie already. What’s more, business life has taught him that you should only look after yourself, otherwise other people will step over you. The zombie invasion where people bite and infect each other seems like a metaphor for the world of business. But the threat to his daughter changes him. He learns to cooperate with another dad. This dad is a rough guy with a pregnant girlfriend. He is flippant and doesn’t seem ready to commit. He doesn’t even want to name his child yet. But together they take responsibility and rediscover what really matters to them.
The film has a warmer heart than Danny Boyle’s films, like 20 Days Later (2003). Train to Busan is about rediscovering humanity and empathy. There are also some class differences that make everything harder. The rich businessmen are the most fearful, and the first ones to tell second class passengers to get lost. There is even a homeless guy who is secretly the noblest of them all. There are echoes here of another Korean train movie: Snowpiercer (2013). With films like this it is always fun to guess from the start who is going to make it to the end, and while the story is rather predictable, not everything ends well.
All in all, Train to Busan is a nicely layered action movie with deeper thematic material if you go look for it. But on the surface, it can be just as easily enjoyed as a fresh, exciting action movie.