South Korea’s latest blockbuster hit and director Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action film, Train to Busan, took a risk in producing yet another zombie, apocalyptic film. The zombie storyline has been overdone within the horror genre, yet Train to Busan succeeds in adding social commentary and in its execution. Elise Hu of NPR explains the film’s clear references to recent events in South Korea. She notes the connections to the 2014 ferry accident and 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, which were both poorly handled by the government. Her claim that “the film blames corporate callousness for the death toll” is strongly apparent throughout the film, but could be developed further. Corporate callousness is only a small piece of the greater problems in South Korea and the horrors that are developed throughout the film.
Train to Busan is not desperately concerned with establishing the cause of the outbreak of the undead; it is your common, unclearly defined chemical exposure of some type that is only given attention in the opening sequence. Instead, the movie places its focus, at least in the early going, on the characters and on driving the plot forward. Seok-woo is initially painted as a workaholic and successful businessman, yet also an absent and inept father to his young daughter, Soo-an. He only grants her wishes to visit her mother after an onslaught of guilt from his mother, his ex-wife and Soo-an, herself. There is no doubt that his failure to care for his daughter is a result of his work environment and his lifestyle. However, this only leads the audience to believe he is narcissistic and perhaps even hope for his early demise, as soon as the zombies are introduced on the train. It is not until approximately one hour and twenty-four minutes into the film that the audience gains some insight into the significance of his affiliation with wealth management and the corporate world. Seok-woo’s analyst, Kim, who works with him on the fund that he manages, explains, “This was started at YS Biotech. The centerpiece of our plan.” At this very moment, he realizes that all the bloodshed is in fact on his hands. In his literal attempt to wash the blood off of his hands, while in the bathroom, it seems pointless – his entire body is covered in it. Moments earlier, he cannot face his true self in the mirror. The film stresses the lack of personal morality or the failure to practice collectivism as a blameworthy mentality – a common characteristic portrayed among all those in the corporate world. Those who are only concerned for egotistical, lucrative matters are the real monsters.
Even this man who has been involved with this line of work for years is disgusted by what has resulted from his company’s actions. Seok-woo’s image is doubled and then tripled in the mirrors, depicting a clear splitting of himself and his conflicted realization of the monster he has been. Seok-woo is not the only passenger on board with this type of affiliation, however.
Yon-suk is the corporate CEO aboard the first-class car of the train, who is portrayed as the typical self-absorbed corporate asshole. His character, which appears to be awfully egotistical, manages to transition into a self-preserving, murderous lunatic. He shoves countless people in harm’s way to save himself. At times his behavior appears questionable and beyond reckless because his survival would still have been possible without hurting others. There is a clear alignment of his actions with his corporate background in his constant assertion of his job title and authority. Corporate callousness is undoubtedly involved in the initiation of the zombie outbreak and accountable for specific human deaths. However, it is not the sole culpable party.
The film provides a greater, less obvious commentary on humanity and its responsibility for the horror. The entirety of the narrative revolves around the conflict between self-preservation and self-sacrifice. There are countless instances in which Seok-woo is the subject of scrutiny from Soo-an or Sang-hwa for his selfish tendencies. When choosing to separate from the group and save only himself and Soo-an, when they arrive at Daejeon Station, the very young Soo-an sees the selfishness in this act, while he does not. She shouts “this is why mommy left you.” He insists that in these circumstances it is okay to only look out for themselves. The commitment to self-preservation that many characters display in this film is arguably more terrifying than the zombies themselves. The scene at about 1 hour and 10 minutes, in which the main group is trapped in a train car with zombies attempting to enter, at one end, and people preventing their entrance into their car, at the other end, is truly horrifying. These people are under the impression that the group that has only been separated from them for a short time may have become “infected.” Yet, they have no grounds to believe this, especially after minutes have passed and this group still appears to look and sound very human.
It begs the question whether it is preferred to fight to be in the “safe” car with these disgusting human beings, who are knowingly putting them in harm’s way, or to fall victim to the zombies. Soo-an watches this awful display of humanity unfold in front of her and is subsequently heartbroken. Shortly afterwards, an elderly woman, exhausted from the hypocrisy and heartless mentality of the survivors she is trapped with, lets the crowd of zombies into their train car, ultimately infecting her and everyone else in it. Beyond the pleasant gratification of watching such horrible characters realize their deserved fate, this scene resonates and raises an important idea: perhaps it is time for mankind to start over from nothing and rediscover humanity.
This can be examined further in the deliberate use of zombies as the main source of horror. Zombies are mindless killing machines. They lack any amount of individuality, values or the capacity for love or empathy. In the transition from human to zombie, people of all classes or backgrounds are reduced to the same level. Whether an individual sacrifices themselves for another’s survival or simply does not succeed in self-preservation, the end result is absolute. It begs the question of what makes people human, especially in such a circumstance in which people are reduced to a mechanical and predictable creature. More notably, zombies resemble conformity. The ugly characters, who are easily persuaded by the CEO to turn against the main group and prevent their passing into the front car, suggest that the South Korean people are equally as responsible as the corporate giants and the government. While they may not have initiated the corruption, they are perpetuating it. The South Korean people in the film do not challenge the media and government collusion that covers up their failures. Instead, they believe what they are told or follow the status quo. Even analyst Kim fell victim to the same zombie-like conformity in the financial world as he cries, “we only did what we were told.” While corporate cruelty initiated the problem, it cannot hold all the blame.
Elise Hu’s claim that “the film blames corporate callousness for the death toll” is too absolute and only captures part of the story. Train to Busan provides a greater commentary on humanity and its responsibility for perpetuating the horror. In fact the humans fighting for their survival are significantly more terrifying than the zombies at times. The persistence of zombies, their lack of humanity and mindless conformity convey an important lesson: we, as human beings, have learned nothing from history. Whether it be corporate callousness, not questioning the media, or simply not challenging the status quo, the social and humanity issues portrayed in this film can be applied to cultures across the world, and not just South Korea.