An American Train to Busan

In 1954 the film Seven Samurai, from Akira Kurosawa, released to Japanese theaters. It was third highest grossing film that year, beating out Godzilla for the spot. It told the story of a small village in the year 1587, suffering from an excess of bandits. With no money to give, they looked to trade food for any ronin willing to work for it. It was there that seven samurai stand guard and defended the town against the roving bandits.

When it came to remaking Seven Samurai for American audiences in the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven, there were no samurai. Samurai were a cultural image that had no foundation in the states, so instead the film took the values of the traveling ronin and applied them to something familiar, fresh, and already popular in American cinema: the western. Bonanza had just premiered the previous year for its first season, and it would still be two years before John Wayne would be calling anyone a pilgrim, to give that moment of time a point of reference.

The Magnificent Seven retained a lot of ideas from the original film, telling the story of a small village besieged by bandits, with only enough cash to pay the most desperate of roaming gunslingers. When it came to remaking Seven Samurai there was an understanding that there had to be changes made to the characters and story to better fit the new setting. The new setting and the culturally transposed characters meant that the remake would have to make choices in how dialogue is written and action is delivered, creating something new in the process.

It is inevitable that every successful movie will eventually be remade, doubly so if that movie came out in a foreign market. The film industry has a long history of remaking movies, some translating the originals to different genres, like the spaghetti westerns of old, some looking to take the original idea and expand on it with a larger budget, like The Ring (2002). Train to Busan (2016) turned out to be a success, not to mention a great zombie film to boot, so it’s not a surprise that a production company would want to give it an American translation.

The remake already has a title and a director: it will be called The Last Train to New York, and it will be directed by Timo Tjahjanto. While I’m not personally familiar with his work, a quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes reveals that his films have generally had positive critical reception, something that’s very hard to find in any consistent way in the horror market.

If you haven’t seen the South Korean film Train to Busan, here’s the basic idea of it. It tells the story of a father trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter. They live in Seoul, while her mother lives separately in Busan. Instead of having her travel to Busan alone, he goes with her aboard a high-speed train. Then zombies show up, and the passengers find themselves trapped in that isolated space, mostly powerless against the zombies that are quickly closing in. The survivor’s struggle doesn’t just include fending off the horde, but also dealing with their own paranoia.

The isolated cramped space of the train makes for an interesting setting, and the dynamics between the competing characters makes for a lot of exciting twists and turns. There’s something the father does at the end that felt like he was just being stupid for the sake of the plot, and it’s unclear exactly how long it takes someone to turn into a zombie. For some it’s seconds, for others it’s minutes. These issues aside, it’s still a really good zombie film that’s worth checking out.

Looking at the foundational setup for the story shows that there are already a few cultural differences towards making an American remake, the first being that the United States doesn’t have a high-speed train. The train in Train to Busan is specifically the Korean Train Express, or the KTX for short. There are several KTX lines but the one featured in the film does, in reality, travel between South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, to Busan, the second most populous city in South Korea. The movie takes advantage of the public awareness of the train, giving the story a prominent setting that South Koreans already would recognize.

Americans aren’t necessarily known to be long distance train travelers, at least not for quite a while. Part of this is because of the lack of high-speed transit, but that also combines with the fact that the United States is simply a big country. For instance, the distance between Seoul and Busan is about 259 miles. The distance from Chicago to New York City is about 790 miles. Even with proper train tracks laid out, the fastest train in the world would still take over two hours, without stopping, to travel the distance. Existing train transport takes over twenty hours to cover this kind of distance.

This changes if the story was going to be set within the confines of one city. While Americans aren’t noted for traveling cross country by train, there is notable inner city train utilization. Instead of traveling from a capital city to another, distant, populous city, the story could still utilize the same time frame as the original film, but shorten the distance, moving from a suburb downtown, or vice versa. This does change up the dynamic a lot, especially considering the idea that the main character of the original had money. If the distance that the story is supposed to cross is supposed to take the same amount of time as in the original film, then there would have to be an explanation as to why the protagonist’s daughter doesn’t just take a cab, or some other means of transportation. Also, given the fact that the remake is titled The Last Train to New York, there’s the implication that the starting location is going to be not just outside of the city, but also outside of the state.

The remake could choose to just make up a high-speed train in America. It’s a story about zombies, it doesn’t necessarily need to also be a realistic depiction of American railyards. The problem here is that it loses the cultural specificity that the KTX brought with it to the original. A fantasy high speed train does the inverse of grounding a location, spatially placing the would-be survivors on a roller coaster ride through middle America. There’s another reason why it’s not a great idea to just make up a high-speed train for the new protagonist and his daughter to travel on: we’ve already seen it before.

If the filmmaker’s approach the remake is to just look at what they thought were the iconic images and copying and pasting, then we’ll just end up with the same film at best, the remake of Pulse (2006) at worst. Just taking the original’s ideas and shifting them over to a different continent without considering the cultural and locational differences would show that the remake’s filmmakers are less interested in the creative possibilities and more interested in building off of an already successful series.

That, or they just wanted an excuse to make a movie with zombies in it.

The limitations to the American transit system do present opportunities that the remake can take advantage of and make something new, not necessarily to elevate it over the original material, but to give a reason as to why the story is being given a different setting. For instance, why are the main characters traveling by train? Maybe the daughter has a fear of flying, or a fear of heights. That by itself is a simple enough explanation, but it can easily be capitalized later on in the story if the characters find themselves having to move upward to escape the zombies.

There’s no reason that the train ride needs to be limited to the few hour trip that the original went on, and would be able to offer a new spin on the original film’s take on light and darkness. In Train to Busan, light, and the lack of it, became a prominent part of the plot, dependent on the train traveling through tunnels. A train trip that takes a long time would allow the day to turn to night and back to day, preventing tunnels from becoming a plot device and giving the survivors a running clock to be aware of.

A remake of Train to Busan, or any story, doesn’t have to be an opportunity to capitalize on an already successful idea. It could take that idea and understand that shifting the setting means that the people of the new setting will have a different set of cultural expectations. That change could then lead to others, and with that allow the filmmakers to create something entirely new.

Just please don’t remake Squid Game. Nobody wants that.

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