When certain death surrounds you,
You’d be foolish not to fear,
To run and hide and save yourself
And those few you hold dear.
Yet in the face of jeopardy,
What will you sacrifice?
Your conscience and humanity?
For those too have a price.
For some, to care for more than self,
The risk may be too high,
But ask yourself how proud you’ll be
Both if and when you die.
MPAA rating for Train to Busan: Not Rated (I guess R but it’s not as bad as some)
MPAA rating for Seoul Station: Not Rated (should be R)
If someone had told me last year that the first movie I’d love in 2018 was a South Korean zombie flick, I’d never have believed it. I only half-believed all the positive buzz around Train to Busan because hey, it’s a zombie movie, and I don’t watch zombie movies. I’ve never seen Dawn of the Dead or The Walking Dead and have only really liked a precious few of that genre (World War Z, Warm Bodies). The living dead concept is intriguing, but usually it seems like an excuse for excessive gore and end-of-the-world futility. But for some reason I checked out Train to Busan, which I can now say is my favorite of the genre and honestly one of my favorite horror films period, mainly because it goes beyond its horror limitations to deliver exceptional thrills and emotional stakes worth caring about too. Since I loved Train to Busan then, I had to check out its animated prequel, if only for comparison’s sake, a prequel that reminded me exactly why I don’t typically enjoy zombie movies.
First, let’s focus on the good one. Train to Busan seems like such a simple idea: zombies on a train. It could easily have been the concept of a B-grade cheesefest, but the filmmakers went above and beyond to make it gripping. A big part of that is giving us worthwhile characters, particularly Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a disengaged father who decides to accompany his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an) as she returns to his ex-wife in Busan. There are various other passengers that quickly stand out as “survivor characters”: a man and his pregnant wife, a traumatized tramp, two high school students, and a self-serving businessman, among others. Things seem to start normally as the train sets out, but an abundance of warning signs builds the tension as a zombie outbreak engulfs the nation and the train itself. From there, it’s an all-out flight of survival with a few much-needed moments to catch one’s breath (even a disarming chuckle or two), but the suspense is ever-present. I don’t think I’ve been this tense during a movie since Dunkirk.
What’s impressive about Train to Busan is that it delivers the scares and shocks alongside an insightful character arc without sacrificing either. Seok-woo starts out as an apparent coward, fearfully closing a door in the face of someone fleeing the zombie onslaught, yet his self-first philosophy is called out in the criticisms of his daughter, while also playing out to an extreme in the uncaring actions of other passengers. The contrast between these mindsets imparts to the action some deeper themes behind it. There are sacrifices aplenty, some meaningful, some pointless, but the film seems to affirm the importance of helping others in the face of desperation rather than just oneself. To that end, the conclusion is surprisingly emotional as well, right up to the film’s anxious final moments.Since I’ve said I don’t like the gory side of zombie movies, I should address that part of it. There is blood, but Train to Busan is still greatly restrained compared with a lot of others out there. Heck, some of the commercials for Walking Dead are worse than anything in Train to Busan. A big part of that is the absence of knives and guns, which draw maximum blood while also dehumanizing the still human-like zombies. (Sorry, but all the head-shots and such bother me.) Here, baseball bats are as bad as it gets, and most of the blood comes from the initial outbreak of zombies biting people’s necks. The fact that the victims quickly “turn” also does away with the whole flesh-eating element while also making the ever-growing horde even scarier. So I was thankful that the film didn’t rely on violence for its scares. In fact, after the initial outbreak, it’s really more of a fast-paced thriller than a horror. The zombies are the running type also seen in World War Z, and there are several moments that had me going “oh my gosh” as things devolve from bad to worse, often making great use of the visual effects.
How then does Seoul Station, from the same director Yeon Sang-ho, compare? It’s not exactly anime since it’s Korean rather than Japanese, but it has a similar visual style. I think it purports to be a prequel showing the origin of the zombie apocalypse, but it doesn’t really give any further details about the actual cause. A wounded homeless man is apparently patient zero, and while he slowly “turns,” we meet a runaway girl named Hye-sun who has a falling out with her cash-strapped and selfish boyfriend. The boyfriend is soon confronted by her father, and the two of them go in search for Hye-sun right as the city starts spiraling into zombie-infested chaos.Seoul Station has some merit to it, mainly in the strictly horror department. There are some moments of genuine terror, particularly a white-knuckle encounter with a crazy woman, so if you enjoy zombie movies for the situational tension alone, you might like it. I, however, found plenty to dislike. For one, the animation, while mostly good, has the stilted look that 3-D-ish anime hasn’t gotten past, such as the way the characters walk. In addition, the gore and foul language (subtitled) are more pronounced here than in Train to Busan, and the characters are dumber compared to the rather clever survival techniques in its live-action counterpart. For one thing, everyone seems very slow to grasp the idea of a zombie outbreak, as if they’ve never heard of a zombie before, whereas Train to Busan showed that “zombies” were exactly where people’s minds went.
Still, I could look past most of that if the ending were worthwhile, but this is one case where the ending completely ruined it for me. The film pulls out a dark twist that pounds in the whole end-of-the-world futility I mentioned earlier I didn’t like. The characters are far less sympathetic, and the end only amplifies that. I didn’t hate the movie as I was watching it, but by the end, I did. Seoul Station tries harder to focus on its themes of class warfare, which were much more subtle in Train to Busan, yet it comes off as a cheaper offshoot of a much better original.I’ve said before that I have very particular tastes when it comes to horror movies, but seeing two ostensibly similar zombie films side by side made me consider why exactly I loved one and hated the other. I can say I prefer genuine creepiness and atmosphere over gore, but in this case, I think it comes down to this (spoiler warning): I don’t like stories whose main purpose is killing off its characters. If there’s no survivor by the end, then everything that came before was pointless. If I actually care about the characters who live and die, then the end product becomes even better. That’s why Train to Busan exceeded my expectations. Clearly, I’m not about to become a fan of zombie movies in general, but I’m glad to have found one member of the genre that truly impressed me.
Best line (from Train to Busan): (Soo-an, pricking her father’s conscience) “Dad, you only care about yourself. That’s why mommy left.”
Rank for Train to Busan : List-Worthy
Rank for Seoul Station: Dishonorable Mention
© 2018 S.G. Liput
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