South Korea’s latest blockbuster hit, Train to Busan, is bringing social commentary back to the zombie horror genre. A massive success in South Korea, it became 2016’s first film to top 10 million viewers in the country.
Train to Busan tells the story of a busy fund manager, Seok-woo (played by Gong Yoo) who is going through a messy divorce. His daughter, Su-an (played by Kim Su-an), is thrust in the middle, stuck with her inattentive father but wishing to be reunited with her mother in Busan. On Su-an’s birthday, her father promises to take her to see her mother. So, they take the train to Busan, about an hour’s trip out of Seoul on the bullet train.
The trip is interrupted when a woman infected with a virus dies and becomes reanimated as a zombie. She starts a rampage of killing that grows exponentially throughout most of the carriages. Some passengers survive, including Sang-hwa and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong, and one teammate of a high school baseball team, Young-guk (Rooftop Prince’s Choi Woo-shik).
The group battle zombies, other passengers, a bossy and selfish bureaucrat, and an unknown future.
Social Commentary (and Zombies)
The surprise South Korean hit is finally bringing social commentary back to the zombie horror genre. Train to Busan harks back to George A. Romero’s zombie movies, making a statement about social issues in a smart and considered manner. If you’re after some zombie gore and run-of-the-mill horror, you’re not going to be disappointed here. But Train to Busan explores themes beyond that.
South Korea knows better than most that they may be facing a future that must deal with large swathes of refugees. With their neighbors to the north sitting on a knife’s edge, the South Korean government is on constant high alert. While they prepare for when the divided nations can reunify, integrating North Koreans into the advanced South Korean society will be challenging. This is a problem that many have grave concerns about.
Train to Busan doesn’t explicitly discuss these fears, but the characters are clearly driven by this fear of the unknown. When a small group of passengers become separated from the larger group in the front, they must fight off flesh-eating zombies as well as prejudice from fellow passengers. Worried that the new group may be infected, the passengers make it near impossible for the ‘refugees’ to enter the safety of their carriage. Using brute force and desperation, the smaller group bash through the barrier as their only chance for survival.
Once through, they’re met with a chilly response. The passengers of this carriage fear the risks involved in having these new people among them. We know that this group is safe – we’ve watched them outmaneuver, outsmart, and outwit these creatures through the train. However, looking at it from the larger group’s perspective, their concern that letting a few more people in may have a detrimental effect on the larger group, is understandable.
Tackling the Refugee Crisis (and Zombies)
These aren’t just the concerns of the Korean peninsula. These are worldwide concerns, with issues about asylum seekers and refugees from war-torn countries in the forefront of everyday news. What if we let in a terrorist? What if we let in someone with Ebola or the Zika virus? As borders open, the fear of the unknown grows.
Train to Busan skillfully addresses these issues without hitting you over the head with them.
Papa, Can You Hear Me (and Zombies)?
Warning: spoilers ahead
Adding another level of social commentary, the film looks at the toll that over-worked businessmen have on their families. It looks at the greed and selfishness of a self-serving society and the ramifications that it has on the world.
Seok-woo has been looking out for number-one for far too long. He’s out of touch with his daughter, and always arguing with his wife over custody. Likewise, he refers to his underlings as lemmings (a nice foreshadowing to the zombies he’s about to face) and makes shady business deals that lead to the accident at the biotech plant that causes the zombie outbreak.
Throughout the film, Seok-woo learns to sacrifice for the greater good. He risks his life to save a homeless man. He shows strength in the face of adversity. And ultimately, he sacrifices himself for his daughter and the safety of a pregnant woman.
While Seok-woo learns his lesson, the ringleader of the main group of passengers does not. He’s the one championing for the smaller group to be banned from entering their carriage. His selfish fear lands them all in a worse peril than if he’d acted with compassion. In fact, his selfishness grows more intense as the situation worsens. He sacrifices a teenage girl for the sake of his own safety, and his thoughtless actions get the train driver killed. Eventually, he reveals his deep-seated fear and denial of the situation, confessing that he just wants to get home to his mother. Even this puts lives at danger, as Seok-woo must fight him off to save his child.
A History of Controversy
Director Yeon Sang-ho isn’t afraid of touching on social commentary in his films. His dark and disturbing animated film The King of Pigs dealt with the problems of class and how the South Korean schooling system perpetuates these issues. However, Train to Busan manages to hit on something more universal. Today, South Korea’s concerns are the world’s concerns, and this film faces these issues directly, without compromise.
Ultimately, though, Train to Busan is just a damned good zombie movie.