Today is Thanksgiving, and at Mass this morning during the homily the priest reminded us of how it is “right and just,” as the prayer goes, to give thanks. It is a call to reverence God in all situations, no matter how terrible. With 2020 going the way it has, it is even more important to take stock of our blessings, and know that God is good. I mean, and not to tempt fate here, but at least we have not had a zombie outbreak. This is the subject of today’s movie, Train to Busan (2016), a film that I knew nothing about until yesterday. For instance, I did not know it was a Korean film, and had a few of the same actors as Parasite (2019), which did not give me much hope. In sticking with the theme of the day, I am thankful it was better than the more recent film.
In Train to Busan, Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is a fund manager seeking to get ahead in the cutthroat financial world. His dedication, though, has alienated his family. He had to be reminded that it is his daughter’s, Soo-an (Su-an Kim), twelfth birthday. Seeking to placate her, he brings her home a Nintendo Wii, only to find that she already has one. All she really wants is a relationship with her parents, particularly with her mother at the moment since her father seems more interested in his work. Mom and dad are separated, and Soo-an blames dad. In resignation, Seok-woo agrees the next day to bring Soo-an by train to her mom who is living in the city of Busan, hence the title of the movie. It is when they board the train that things begin to break down in earnest. They notice a crowd of people on the platform that do not look right, and a woman who had apparently been bitten stumbles into one of the cars shortly before they leave the station. If you are familiar with these kinds of flicks, you can guess what happens next: she turns into a zombie. However, they are not your run-of-the-mill, shambling, reanimated corpses. They sprint towards their targets, and they have an inhuman strength once they get a hold of you. With most of the passengers not understanding the situation, many of them are attacked by this first victim, causing a chain reaction of infection that triggers a panicked stampede through successive cars to wherever safety they could find. Along the way, they learn a few key aspects of these zombies, namely that if they cannot see you they tend to forget about you. You can literally pull the wool over their eyes, in other words. They also do not do well in the dark, as is discovered when the train goes through tunnels. This is the situation as the train continues on to its destination, believing that a haven could be found at their terminus. Along the way, Seok-woo must face his latent selfishness, not only in protecting his daughter from danger but in eventually helping some of the other survivors with which they huddle. One by one, unfortunately, they fall victim to the hordes of undead, until Seok-woo and Soo-an, along with a pregnant fellow survivor Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung), must catch a single engine for the last leg of the journey. Once aboard, Seok-woo deals with one more zombie, which he manages to get rid of but not before being bitten himself. Forcing Soo-an and Seong-kyeong to remain in the engineer’s compartment as he turns into a zombie himself, he then throws himself off the train. Eventually these last two make it to the very real safety of Busan.
I swear my relative vagueness about specific events in Train to Busan is not due to the difficulty of typing out Korean names. Instead, I wanted to remark on a few here in relating the behavior of many of the protagonists to the Christian ideal of sacrifice. I have alluded to this concept in other reviews, but just to recap it comes down to Jesus telling his disciples that there is no greater thing one can do for ones friends than to lay down your life for them. This film contain many admirable examples of this heroic virtue. Perhaps the best illustration in this movie is Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), Seong-kyeong’s husband. To be clear, he does not necessarily seek to die. But when he and Seok-woo are holding back a mob of zombies pressing in on their car and he gets bit, he tells Seok-woo to take his wife while he gives his life to ensure they get away. This happens again in an arguably more poignant manner with the Homeless Man (Gwi-hwa Choi) who had stowed away when the train left the station. While the others had more of a peer-to-peer connection, here is a society outcast giving his life for others. He is a true martyr, and it is sad when he dies.
As powerful as a moment that is in Train to Busan when the Homeless Man sacrifices himself for others, the rest of the movie is pretty standard zombie fare. The one twist, of course, is that it is set on a moving train. Still, it is pretty exciting. And I had a small prayer answered at the end when Soo-an and Seong-kyeong are walking towards the soldiers defending Busan. At first they believe the two girls to be zombies and they are about to open fire. Luckily Soo-an begins singing and they are saved. There is a saying that says when you sing you pray twice. God listens.