It’s a truism to comment that horror movies are always about the things which society can’t find another way to talk about. But that’s easier to puzzle out when you know how a society works in the first place. When South Korea makes a zombie movie, what - as Talleyrand might have said - did they mean by it?
Which is not to say that you need to know what they meant by it. It will still work if you don’t. It’s fast zombies versus clueless unarmed civilians on a train. The only thing that the civilians have got going for them is that zombies haven’t figured out how doors work. On the other hand, they have figured out - kind of - how glass works, inasmuch as they can see through it and if they get enough weight pushing against it, it will break.
And those are the rules of engagement, pretty much. The humans have brains, and they know how to work a door handle. The zombies have rage, and numbers. The drama, as opposed to the thrills, comes from the uneasy truth that brains can be a problem just as much as they can be a solution. Brains can be greedy, panicky or just plain dumb. Brains can be too smart for their own good. Brains can see problems that aren’t really there. We get a lot of that, and the zombies get a lot of snacks.
This is one of those movies where it’s a bad idea to get too attached to anyone. And since it’s a South Korean movie, that includes the adorable moppet. The Host taught us that moppets are fair game in Korea, not like Hollywood. In Hollywood, if there’s a kid, the kid is going to make it even if no-one else does. In Korea, they eat dogs and schwack moppets. These guys are not like westerners.
Which brings me back to trying to figure out what this thing looked like to its original audience. South Korea has spent nearly seventy years with an increasingly insane next door neighbour. In principle, they’re in favour of uniting the two Koreas; in practice they’re uneasily aware that 70 years of craziness, famine, and more craziness have made North Korea a place so different from South Korea that they don’t even really speak the same language any more. Unification would involve 25 million hungry people with no idea how to live in South Korea’s world and no reason to stay where they are.
There’s no way that this kind of worry isn’t rattling through a Korean audience’s mind when they watch Train to Busan, but it’s hard to know how they match it up with what’s happening. The zombies are the result of a corporate experiment gone wrong, which is probably an echo of Korean unease about the way the chaebol system dominates their lives. (all K-Horror movies I’ve seen ground their monster in either commerce or the American occupation, or if possible both). The infection is rapid, and overwhelming; within minutes of being bitten you’re another zombie roaring and lurching after the remaining normal humans so that you can hunt them down and eat them. Is that just modern fast zombie lore, or is there a subtext I can’t pick up? And how much of the human dumbness we see is a comment on things which Korean society doesn’t like about itself? There’s a lot of obvious dislike of capitalism (the most odious character in the movie is a COO, and the main protagonist is a fund manager whose job is his evil side), yet there’s a continuing thread of respect for certain kinds of authority - the kind of authority represented by middle-ranking guys trying to do their job decently. The nearest thing in the movie to an uncomplicated hero is the train driver, who’s terrified and yet keeping it together without any flash.
As a movie, even for someone who doesn’t know what the hell’s going on in Korea, Train to Busan gets the job done. It’s scary, and thrilling, and there’s enough depth to the character that it matters when yet another one of them gets chopped down by bad luck, bad karma or bad thinking (the COO is bad to the bone that way). And there are moments where they really get their money’s worth out of the zombies. There’s not a lot of gore, but there’s a lot of imagination in coming up with new ways to make the zombies into a menace that’s just out of reach. Naturally there’s talk of a remake in English. I think I’d prefer a world where they spent the money on helping us understand the original better.