Know what bores me? Zombie movies. In my youth I couldn’t get enough of them, and still proudly claim to be a Romero devotee, but back in the early 00s the floodgates opened, and anybody with a camera, a couple friends and some bad makeup started churning the things out. Likely inspired by the box-office success of 28 Days Later or the Dawn of the Dead remake, zombies became the go-to movie subject matter for wannabe filmmakers because with just a few K-mart makeup effects, you could “make a zombie”, thus the films were super-cheap to produce. The downside, of course, is that with the increased quantity, the quality of zombie films plummeted, each new flick seemingly a cookie-cutter ripoff of finer films to have come before. The end result was that many longtime zombie fans like myself grew cold and callused and simply quit watching them.
This largely holds true today, but I will occasionally let down my guard and give one a chance if people who I respect recommend it. That’s what happened due to strong word of mouth with Train to Busan. Available on Netflix at the time I’m writing this, the movie did one thing glaringly RIGHT that most cheapo zombie flicks don’t bother with: STRONG CHARACTERIZATION.
The zombie action in Train is fairly slow to begin, but I was hooked nevertheless. Although the plot is foreshadowed, the opening scenes depict a family relationship centered around a sweetheart of a very young girl who pines for the attention of her father. The dad is a self-absorbed jerk, but the daughter is the center and the soul of the story. The dad’s one redeeming quality is his love for his daughter, so you can’t hate the guy but you sure want him to get his head on straight for the sake of young Soo-an. This family dynamic is established quickly but effectively.
As they board the train, Soo-an soon meets Sang-hwa as well as his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong. Sang-hwa initially comes off as a friendly but braggadocious and overly macho tough-guy, but the script-writers smartly upend the Hollywood cliche and make this strongman one of the most likeable an engaging characters on screen. This means that when Sang-hwa finally gets to flex his muscles to save his wife, his newborn baby–and even Soo-an–the audience is totally along for the ride and wants to stand up and cheer. Combine this band of travelers with a team of teenage baseball players, a schoolgirl with a crush, and two loving elderly sisters, and I found a cast of characters that I wanted to root for, that truly I wanted to survive the ghastly zombie ordeal.
The well-drawn characters and their ensuing interaction is exactly what sets Train to Busan apart from the thousands of similarly themed movies. The scriptwriters got it right, and other writers should follow their lead, because character depth should ultimately be what truly defines a story–and what makes it stand out from the masses.