Train to Busan is a South Korean film written by Park Joo-suk and directed by Yeon Sang-ho. Its budget was a reported $8.5 million, and it earned $98.5 million at the worldwide box office and was South Korea’s highest grossing film of 2016. There’s a chance most of you reading this will already know about this film in which case this will take the least amount of convincing of any Film of the Month I’ll do. If you haven’t heard of or seen this film and you’re a fan of zombies, thrillers, gore; or you like eclectic casts of characters, themes of family, friendship, and human compassion in the face of human survival – or you’re just a big fan of trains – then this film should be on your list.
Set in South Korea, it follows a group of passengers on a train as a zombie outbreak occurs. The film has grotesquely visceral visual and practical effects that will have you captivated by the horrendous distortions and contortions of the zombies’ appendages. Its story is basic – human survival in the face of unexplainable horror – but its writing is great. It creates characters with depth, pathos, levity, who exhibit a wide variety of personalities. The characters all feel different, they serve a function, and you care for them that if – or when – they die you will be left possibly weeping (the person I watched this film with did cry and I was almost weeping).
The predominant theme (the nature and behaviour of Man/people when faced with their death) is supported by a few underlying themes but there’s one I liked that I felt wasn’t developed enough so was inconsistent. The theme I’m talking about is a dichotomy and representation of the classism in South Korean society; and the privilege that comes with being in, or at least perceived to be in, the ruling elite. It’s important to note South Korea has a very Western, Capitalistic society and I think the social tensions that come with that system is presented in this film. That could be one reason why this film has resonated with Western audiences. This is represented by the character of the COO of Stallion Express (played by Kim Eui-Sung) who orders the train driver to leave the other passengers, not the only time he tries; and then assumes an authoritarian and dictatorial position when he’s placed in charge of the scared room he finds himself in. His behaviour in that situation leads to them locking the other group out, a group of vulnerable, bloodied and beaten survivors, including a child (played by Kim Su-an)
The main protagonist, the little girl’s Father, Seo Sook-woo (played by Gong Yoo), is a hedge fund manager and is perceived as part of the capitalist elite (as demonstrated by the remarks made by Ma Dong-seok’s character). (Also, I want to take a moment to give a shout out to Ma Dong-seok’s character as he is hands down the best character in the film. I could easily devote a whole article to him.) Sook-woo’s story could be viewed as him shedding his capitalist life for one rooted in humanity. This is evidenced physically by his suit being ripped and stained as he progresses through the zombie infested train. And evidenced in his behaviour: at the beginning he’d rather work instead of taking his daughter to her mother’s; but by the end he would literally sacrifice himself to make sure his daughter arrives safely.
An expression of this theme are the zombies themselves, representing the extreme effects of un-checked capitalism: the metamorphosis of people into beings that have no humanity, no consciousness, but merely the desire to consume and eat, even at the detriment to the survival of others and the very foundations of society itself. This can also be evidenced by the cause of the zombies – nuclear weapons – which is arguably Capitalism’s greatest achievement. Would it have been possible, or as effective, if not for Western free market capitalism? Beyond the themes of human kinship and class struggle, it’s also a Zombie movie. And as someone who considers themselves a Zombie fanboy, I was blown away by the ones in this film. As mentioned above, the practical effects/ special effects were amazing, and the zombies were detailed and scary. There’s one reservation I had about the zombies going in and that was that they ran. In my opinion, true zombies, by definition, shouldn’t run. It’s their relentless shuffling perseverance that makes them scary; how something that slow can cause so much damage and chaos is part of the function of Zombies. In there lies the challenge for writers when they use Zombies. But, Train to Busan flips it on its head and makes them quick. The reason I didn’t mind it in Train to Busan is because the film would have actually been worse if the zombies could only shuffle. Setting it on a train means slow, shuffling zombies would be easy to run from. Whereas the Train to Busan ones are terrifying because they are quicker than the humans effectively. The film’s setting made it a necessity that the zombies run. If the film was of worse quality, then maybe this would be a bigger criticism and I wouldn’t be recommending it. Or maybe these aren’t “true zombies” after all (that could be an interesting article).
Send me your thoughts – and movie recommendations – to my email: [email protected]