LAST TRAIN TO BUSAN
SOUTH KOREA 2016
There is a memorable moment in the otherwise forgettable William Wyler 1959 version of Ben Hur. It makes an audience gasp for breath but also chuckle in relief. It has nothing do with the Crucifixion, spiritual enlightenment or the Christian creed. Inevitably the moment occurs during the chariot race. A charioteer is hurled to the floor of the amphitheatre where he collides with the horses and wheels of a passing chariot. Somehow the almost broken man scrambles to his feet. Grateful for his escape the audience is left open mouthed when the shaky charioteer turns around and another chariot hits him full in the face. The message is clear, just when you think it cannot get any worse often it does. If that can be achieved in an old-fashioned epic, imagine what happens in an accelerating apocalypse. Zombie films can be variable but those interested in excitement can relish those zombie moments when the worst just gets worse.
Last Train To Busan is an exciting and great zombie movie. 2016 was a good year for zombie cinema. There have been three films that distinguish the genre and these alone should make the decade memorable for cinema historians. These three films are Maggie, The Girl With All The Gifts and Last Train To Busan. Maggie provides a small scale and personal drama and The Girl With All The Gifts offers an alternative view of the Creation and the destiny of the human race. Last Train To Busan continues a tradition in South Korean horror movies and is critical of present day neoliberal capitalism. Without ever taking itself too seriously it offers political protest that shameless right wing newspapers in Britain prefer to call social satire. The film also has elements that exist in Maggie and The Girl With All The Gifts. We witness conflict between a father and his daughter and are given a view about the future of the human race. Apart from one incident the women in Last Train To Busan escape criticism. The suggestion is that the gender is undervalued. The film has one uncomplicated male hero. He is not too bright and not successful but he does care about others. Sang-hwa is big and tough and the kind of bloke that Norman Mailer recommended for wartime combat. Sang-hwa is sensible, not afraid and ready to rescue others. He is not the main character in the film. He is there to help.
Thanks to the courage of Sang-hwa, relentless zombies and complicated humans the movie is a thrill ride. The set pieces are fabulous and the chases spectacular. In Last Train To Busan the zombies are more animated than normal. These creatures are not burdened with the dopey walk and the listless nodding of heads that often makes them too willing to be victims. Infections vary between movies and countries, and these zombies run at speed. The jerking of their limbs is convulsive, and their indiscriminate appetites create mounds of hungry creatures chewing new victims and each other. Last Train To Busan has claustrophobic confrontations within the train and large-scale spectacle on the railway tracks. In between the action there are smart and well-timed pauses for reflection. It is all achieved by CGI but the film moves at a fabulous pace. No one in the audience will have time to quibble over the special effects. At one point the train to Busan drags a trail of head biting zombies along the rail tracks. This image alone makes the film worthwhile.
Although the inside of the train looks like an aeroplane and the railway station an airport the inspiration for Last Train To Busan appears to be the two great Hitchcock train movies, The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest. The crawl of anxious humans along the luggage racks and above the heads of the zombies has the feel of a Hitchcock movie. Somehow trains calmed Hitchcock. His Catholic guilt he explored elsewhere. There are no obvious Catholics in Last Train To Busan but there is plenty of guilt. Thanks to those self-effacing folks, the IMF and the American Government, the people of South Korea have had to endure neoliberal economics for the past thirty years. This means working hard and the winners not thinking too much about the losers. The harshness of the economic regime produced an increase in suicides. Like The Host, another South Korean horror classic, Last Train To Busan equates suicide with defeat but also as an option for the honourable. At the beginning of the film a mechanical robot substitutes for a security guard and waves us forward. We are entering a society that has already been dehumanised.
Seok-woo is a divorced fund manager. He is obsessed with work and making money. In a better moment he decides to take his daughter to Busan to see her mother, his estranged wife. Seok-woo has sacrificed intimacy with his family for material ambition. His casual conscience is challenged by the apocalypse. His daughter demands he becomes human and thinks about others. Seok-woo is not convinced but the carnage is persuasive. Humanity and compassion will be important, and Seok-woo realises that he needs to be concerned not just about his family and friends but others. He makes moral progress on his journey towards Busan. The villain in the film also has compassion and concern. He wants to survive so that he can see and protect his mother. His concerns, though, are too narrow. Thinking only about his mother and himself he is selfish rather than selfless. His actions permit the zombies to create unnecessary mayhem.
Last Train To Busan has been described as gore filled. This is insensitive criticism. A lot of people are killed in the film including several sympathetic characters. Apocalypses break eggs and much more. There is a lot of blood but heads and limbs stay intact and intestines stay where they should be, out of sight. The deaths may occur on a large scale but they amount to something more than a killing spree. The events in the film mix large scale battles and small scale confrontations. In the distance we see crowds erupt into hysterical zombie carnage but there are also face-to-face encounters that would fit into a Western movie. Because of the relationships of the characters and the sequence of events, the film emphasises how battle translates killing into sacrifice. Most of the humans who die in Last Train To Busan are sacrificed by the circumstances of the struggle. The main characters, though, have to decide between sacrificing themselves or others. For a good guy the choice is obvious, as it should be. The film alerts us to what we should really think about when we fantasise about our role in a possible apocalypse. Wondering about whether we will be tough and capable, the best of what remains, is for the indulged of modern societies. Too many zombie movies are concerned with separating the weak from the strong and endowing the survivors with superior glamour. They neglect the notion of sacrifice and how it affects the really tough decisions we have to make. Last Train To Busan is important because it is great but also because it demonstrates that for all the appeal and worth of zombie movies the genre has been remiss.
The survivors of the last train to Busan are few. They are not strong and will need to be rescued and supported by others. The Girl With All The Gifts imagines a post-apocalyptic future, and so does Last Train To Busan. In very different ways both films are modest about what humans beings should regard as their entitlement and destiny. In Last Train to Busan the scene in the final railway tunnel is poignant. One of the survivors sings something that sounds like the Hawaiian Wedding Song. Familial commitment and human relationships will remain important. But the challenge from the survivors to the audience is clear. We need to be sensible about gadgets that pretend to offer status but instead only make us part of a faceless crowd, like the zombies in the film who are distracted by the ring tones on mobile phones. If human beings continue to adhere to the only fittest survive credo of neoliberalism, we are doomed. The human race can only prevail providing we are willing to help the helpless. In Ben Hur the good guys looked after the lepers, and in Last Train To Busan they support the weak and dependant. If the strong do not accept this responsibility, they will become weak because they will be obliged to live without hope and that means hopeless. And, if a valid future for human beings means sacrifices unpalatable to neoliberal winners, so be it.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.