A ragged-looking man cowers in a train-car’s bathroom. All that can be seen of him are his trembling hands––his face shrouded by his long hair and downturned gaze. The man mumbles: “All dead… Everyone…” The cabin attendant stands at the bathroom door, along with Soo-an (Kim Soo-Ahn), a young girl traveling to visit her mother, and Yon-suk (Eui Sung-kim), who had requested the attendant to check for someone “odd” on board. The attendant asks the disheveled man for his ticket, and warns him that he will be escorted off at the next station. To this cautionary advice, the man turns his gaze towards the attendant, eyes full of fear. “Everyone’s dead!” he mutters, only a little louder, repeating himself at the beckoning of the attendant, this time with a strange smile. Soo-a stares down at the man, turning around to the older man behind her who advises her: “If you don’t study, you’ll end up like him.” She replies with no hesitation: “Mom said whoever says that is a bad person.” Train to Busan (dir. Yeon Sang-ho, 2016) presents South Korea at the onset of a zombie apocalypse, and does so with refreshing ingenuity. But what makes Sang-ho’s vision of a world in outbreak so compelling is its particular focus on class, making for an exciting action movie and a nuanced exploration of social ills. This aforementioned scene encapsulates the film’s ethos, which questions the dynamics of morality and social status: the elderly versus the youth or the rich versus the working class. What makes a zombie apocalypse so terrifying? In Train to Busan, it’s not just the un-dead but the living––a rupture of normalcy brings out the worst in humans, making us victims of our own narcissism.
Train to Busan tells the story of Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a fund-manager, and his daughter Soo-an. Occupied by his job, Seok-woo is emotionally absent in Soo-an’s life. After missing Soo-an’s singing recital, he gives her a Wii for her birthday. He makes a careless mistake: she already owns the exact model, gifted to her for Children’s Day. Seok-woo’s brand of consumerist love, and capitalist individualism is quickly tested once he and Soo-an board the high-speed train from Seoul to Busan.
The two are faced with a zombie outbreak that is fast and uncontrollable. Unlike the slow-infection time in some other popular depictions––say AMC’s The Walking Dead––once these zombies bite, death is near. The infected come back to life contorting in inhuman angles, horror made visceral through the audible snaps of shattering bone. Evolving from human to carnivorous monster in a matter of seconds, the undead are frightening. They are a physical manifestation of contagion, to which fear is rooted in the unknown.
Early on in the train’s outbreak, Seok-woo instructs his daughter: “At a time like this, you only look out for yourself.” Soo-an affirms her humanistic morals later, criticizing her father: “You only care about yourself. That’s why mommy left.” Soo-an is right, and she exists in the film as the audience’s moral grounding, a figure of youth uncorrupted by society’s capitalistic values. The comparisons between zombie and corporate businessmen are with purpose; Seok-woo is described by passenger Sang-hwa (Dong-Seok Ma) as a “bloodsucker.” Corporate corruption causes the outbreak––Seok-woo himself is complicit, having sold shares at the company from whose chemical leaks produced the fatal virus.
Train to Busan doesn’t offer entirely satisfying deaths; that is, morality doesn’t always triumph. There are those whose kind-hearted nature remain intact amidst the chaos, or those who undergo moralistic revision, like Seok-woo, who recognizes the faults of his greed. And there are those who are wholly infected by their narcissism, like COO of Stallion Express Yon-suk. Yon-suk manipulates others at the expense of people’s lives, all for his own well-being. Though he is arguably the most terrifying embodiment of capitalist hegemony and human selfishness, his dishonesty takes him far. His character arc proves the most disheartening of lessons, painting a picture of South Korea’s social ills along the way.
Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie apocalypse is not entirely without hope. Tragedy brings out not just the worst, but the best in people. Seok-woo’s character arc is the main thrust of the story, and it is one of moral redemption. Beginning the film as a selfish, emotionally detached father, he transforms into a self-sacrificing hero, saving others and realizing how important Soo-an is to him. In the face of the current pandemic, Train to Busan offers innumerable parallels to today’s anxieties. It can however, also offer us hope––humans are also capable of selflessness.
*Train to Busan is available to stream on Viki or on Amazon Prime. It is also available to stream for free with ads on Tubi.
Catsoulis, Jeanette. “Review: All Aboard ‘Train to Busan’ for Zombie and Class Warfare.” The New York Times, 21 July 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/22/movies/train-to-busan-review.html. Accessed 5 November 2020.
Kermode, Mark. “Train to Busan review – a nonstop zombie thrill ride.” The Guardian, 30 October 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/30/train-to-busan-review-nonstop-thrill-ride-zombies. Accessed 5 November 2020.