Train to Busan is the second movie of the saga in chronological order, but the first to be released in movies on a large scale and the one that most contributed, with its success, to the distribution of its prequel and the creation of its sequel.
During a trip to accompany his daughter to his ex-wives house, Seok-Woo (played by Gong Yoo), a Korean businessman, finds himself trapped with the rest of the passengers on the train to Busan in the middle of a zombie outbreak that is quickly spreading to the entirety of South Korea.
Even though Seoul Station was made before Train to Busan, it was only thanks to the success of the latter that the animated movie was released in the cinemas of South Korean on a wide scale.
Train to Busan, in fact, managed to have a success that went well beyond South Korean and became a staple of the horror genre on an international scale.
The strengths of the movie
At the beginning of Train to Busan, the zombie outbreak that we know we should expect is little more than a background thought to our first impression of the characters.
The protagonist, Seok-Woo, initially comes across to the audience as a very little sympathetic character. A busy father who only thinks about work to the point of neglecting his family and therefore the emotional needs of his daughter, Su-an (played by Kim Soo-Ahn), the spectators would never imagine getting to a point where they’re actively rooting and hoping for his survival at the end of the film.
The character growth
In Train to Busan, we find characters who change greatly and others that stay the same for the entire story. It is important to mention the latter because they’re the ones that represent and pull the social commentary into Train to Busan where the narration is limited to a much smaller setting that could otherwise make it hard to apply such a theme.
However, it is the positive characters that really make us love the movie.
This is what immediately separates Train to Busan from Seoul Station. If on one hand, the animation doesn’t quite manage to make us develop an affection for its characters, on the other, Train to Busan manages to make us love them much earlier than we even notice we’ve developed a fatal attachment.
The characters are easier to love, they fight against personal and social problems that we can more easily identify and share. The fact that the narration concentrates on their roles in the events rather than the wider external setting allows for both to advance, it gives us the context that surrounds the speeding train but does a far better job of making us believe in the existence of the characters.
One of the reasons we end up loving the characters and the movie so much is definitely the cast. Each single element is excellent and extraordinary in the role they are given, but I’d like to focus our attention on the acting of the youngest of the protagonists: Kim Soo-Ahn.
Kim Soo-Ahn plays the young Su-an and makes her pop in such a way that, even if she’s surrounded by actors with certainly more experience, she leaves us with one of the strongest impressions of the movie. Her emotional depth, the way she shows us the events going on around her, the heart-breaking final performance of the song Aloha Oe, all contribute to constantly grabbing the attention of the viewer and establish the talent and ability of the very young actress.
A claustrophobic setting
The actors’ performances are definitely one of the most important contributions to the success of the film, but another reason for the success of the zombie story of Train to Busan is the setting and the novelty it brings to the horror genre.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of zombie movies and stories in general. The few I’ve become passionate about were ones where the zombie element is framed in a way we’re not used to. While Train to Busan doesn’t really have that – it’s fast sprinting zombies are certainly not the first of their kind -, its setting does give a new spark to how the subject is approached.
The claustrophobic nature of the train where most of the action takes place keeps the anxiety and inevitability of the story high for the entire time. The rhythm and timing of every single event, from the conductor looking away at the wrong time to the soda can making noise at the height of tension, are executed in a perfect and impeccable manner.
Even the fact that the zombies move and multiply at such a fast pace in such a confined environment radically changes the stakes of what could otherwise end up being one of many others zombie movies and makes the zombies a worthy adversary to characters who, contrary to the ones in Seoul Station, in Train to Busan are persons who make smart and proactive choices to ensure their own survival.
The emotional value
Finally, despite it being obvious right from the start that not all the characters will survive the story, it is impossible not to become attached even to the ones that are pretty predictably not going to make it to the end.
This is only possible because the emotional value of Train to Busan is developed in an organic and natural way, without superfluous efforts and exaggeration, in a story that the viewer wouldn’t expect to have such emotional weight.
After all, it’s still only a zombie movie.
In the next article, and last of this series, we’ll take a closer look to Peninsula and make a final review of the similarities, strengths and weaknesses of the entire saga in its three components.