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Stuck Between Stations: Trains and Cinema

In Train To Busan, Sang-ho Yeon’s 2016 genre masterpiece (now streaming on Netflix!), zombies infiltrate a passenger train. The biochemical disaster that produced them is treated with a shrug so offhand it surprises the viewer, even as it sets the stage and drives the narrative. The train is the point of the film: its story, its mise en scène, and its propulsive logic.

With wit and a huge dose of genre self-awareness, Train To Busan joins a much longer line of films that use the close confines of the train to generate both tension and audience identification. Strangers on a Train, Tokyo Story, Before Sunrise and so many more deploy this device. It’s instructive to consider why.

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Appropriately enough, cinema began with the train, in the form of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 49-second film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Audiences, we are told, cowered in their seats, expecting disaster from the representation. It’s a bit hard to believe this, but it’s definitely a good story. And films are nothing if not stories about themselves, autochthonic mythologies of the way we see.

Ever since the Lumières, our films have been obsessed with the train. Its movement, presumably intended to demonstrate the capabilities of filmic representation, haunts us. Like those audience members, we are in thrall to velocity, captured at 24 frames a second.

The first and clearest reason is that we cannot get out of the way. The train is coming for us, or it is literally encapsulating us. This is cinematically desirable. As opposed to open spaces in which we can wander and forget, there is no forgetting on the train. We’re in it for the long haul. And this allows a pretty graceful transition from the stage to the screen, narratively speaking, creating a sometimes claustrophobic space where character differences and affiliations can drive us. In the case of Train To Busan, it also allows for a space with no exit, thus generating tension and horror. We have no other place to go.

The train is also a space where movement is central but the characters are not in charge. Like the audiences themselves, watching the film, they are passengers. This is in some ways akin to Kiarostami’s fixation on cars, but the crucial difference is the movement. Both cars and trains travel through space, but only trains allow for the in-frame absence of a driver. (Cosmopolis notwithstanding, which is actually a train film set in a limo.)

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In Snowpiercer, the train itself becomes a metaphor for class structure. And in Train To Busan, class makes itself very much known, particularly in the relationship between our fund manager protagonist and the blue-collar worker who becomes a friend by necessity. There is something about the train that elevates these notions: it is proximity, but it is also something more elemental. On the train, we are all the same, which paradoxically makes room for difference, and confrontation.

Which is crucial. If the train allows for connection, it also allows for separation. Train To Busan literalizes this in grand fashion, as car doors separate survivors from zombies (and sometimes come crashing down, horrifyingly). In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine’s love affair begins with their shared observation of a miserable German couple they can’t completely understand. The train ride to the country in Ozu’s Tokyo Story serves to showcase modernity, but also the sad, resigned distance from it of his elderly characters, lost in the new world.  

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We do not even need to board the train for it to make its presence felt. Fruitvale Station smartly represents the East Bay (where I live) as a place where trains are constantly heard overhead. They are the soundtrack to our lives, and fraught with meaning. BART indicates our connection to Elsewhere, but also our inability to get away. The tragic consequences for a young black man seem to grow out of our modes of connection and distance.

Similarly, in Justin Tippings Kicks, a trip from Richmond to Oakland by train is viewed as a boundary crossing. The escape the train offers is at the same time a kind of confinement — not just within its doors, but within our lives and homes. It’s a false promise, underwritten by a kind of cynicism. We are never really where we’re going.

All of which makes it fertile ground for cinema. Those walls, those doors, the smell and sounds of closeness as we travel. Film, the most temporal medium, began with the train, and it’s hard to see it giving it up. We’re stuck between stations.

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Rick Kelley is interested in overlooked cultural artifacts and outmoded critical theory. He believes in film preservation, horror movies, love stories and dangerous images. Rick also once sold his guitar to buy berries, as well as things he thought would pair well with berries. You can find more of his writing at ludditerobot.com.