[Beware of Spoilers.]
Director Yeon Sang-ho’s thrilling zombie film, Train to Busan (2016) is a stark reminder to me why I don’t often succumb to the desire to post yearly “best of” lists. I hadn’t seen this film from 2016 when I made my list for the blog at the beginning of 2017.
If I had seen it, Train to Busan would have raced right to the top of the rankings. It’s an amazing experience, and a great film.
Ceaselessly exhilarating and suspenseful, Train to Busan barrels through its 117 minute running time, and will leave a powerful emotional imprint on all but the most jaded viewers. It shows audience new and terrifying sights in a genre -- the zombie film -- that some may feel is creatively exhausted. More than that, Train to Busan offers embedded social commentary about the way to survive a national crisis (or at least to make sure that your child survives it…).
The film utilizes a fascinatingly remote character as its central protagonist, an apparently-heartless fund manager and father, Seok Woo (Gong Yoo).
After introducing us to him, the filmmaker then puts Seok Woo into a pressure cooker situation in which he must protect his lovely little daughter, Su-An (Kim Su-an) from rampaging zombies and selfish survivors.
The question is, how can he protect her? How can he get her to Busan safely?
Seok Woo has two role models by which he could succeed in that quest.
One is Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-Seok), a burly, rough-edged, occasionally inappropriate working class husband and father to be. Sang-hwa will stop at nothing to help the community on the train, and protect his pregnant wife, Seong Kyeong (Jung Yu-mi).
The other example for our hero, Seok Woo, is a cut-throat, perfectly-coiffed businessman, Yon Suk (Kim Eu-Sang), who looks after nothing but his own self-interest. He manipulates, schemes, and commits murder to achieve his ends.
What’s so intriguing about the film -- and this debate -- is the way that the survivors break up on the train into classes of people, some cherished, and some not so much. The train becomes a reflection, finally, of society, with some lives mattering more than others do.
But Train to Busan also proves fascinating for the way that it humanizes all its characters. Even the evil businessman, Yon Suk, is shown to be a human being deserving of mercy, or pity. Yes, he is wrong in every way possible regarding his selfish approach, but the film isn’t really about us vs. them, with “them” being bad, or worthy of death. Train to Busan suggests that, finally, the rich and the poor, the privileged and the under privilege, the safe and the (perhaps) infected, must work together, so that everyone survives.
Why? Because we’re all aboard the same train, heading to the same destination. Your fate is my fate. And mine is yours. Train to Busan is thus a terrifying, heartfelt, and perfect reflection of the world we live in today.
“This is a crucial period.”
Recently divorced Seok Woo has no time for his daughter, Su An, even though it happens to be her birthday. When he bungles her big day by giving her a gift she already has, she presses him for the present she really wants. She wishes for her father to go with her to visit her estranged mother, in Busan.
Very reluctantly, Seok Woo acquiesces to his daughter’s request. They leave Seoul on the KTX-101, bound for Busan. They are unaware of a crisis developing in a nearby quarantine zone, an outbreak of some type. An infected woman manages to dash aboard the train before it leaves the station.
Before long, the infected woman has contaminated another passenger. The infection moves at frightening speed, creating hordes of rampaging zombies in short order.
After initially clashing with another passenger, father to be Sang-Hwa, Seok Woo teams with him to keep their families safe. But they are both up against entrenched interests on the train that have the ear of the conductor and other personnel.
Now these very different men must battle not only zombies, but survivors who refuse to take a risk by letting them into the next (safe) car, for fear that they could be infected.
“At a time like this, watch out only for yourself.”
Early in Train to Busan, Seok Woo tells his daughter not to be good to an old woman on the train who needs to rest during the crisis. He actually tells her that “at a time like this,” she should watch out for only herself.
She should always put herself first, basically.
This “Me First” philosophy, however, is anathema to the empathic young girl, Su An, because she has seen how well that belief system works in her daily life. She feels alone, forgotten. She knows exactly what it is like not to be first in someone’s heart or thoughts.
“You only care about yourself,” she tells her father. “That’s why Mommy left.”
We have no reason to disbelieve her.
Seok Woo has lived his life by that philosophy of Me First, always privileging himself at the expense of his marriage, and at the expense of his child’s happiness. His philosophy may have brought him wealth, but it hasn’t brought him happiness, or closeness to his family. “A marriage shouldn’t be abandoned so easily,” his mother tells him.
But he puts himself first. And others suffer. He is, largely, blind to it.
On the train to Busan, Seok Woo meets two men who bear a great influence on him during the crisis. Each one is a possible mentor or role model. Each one of these men allows him to reconsider his philosophy, and his advice to his daughter.
Sang-Hwa is a working class joe, a guy with a sense of humor, and a real devotion to his pregnant wife. More than that, he seems to understand that for his wife to survive, he needs the help of others. Understanding this fact, he puts himself on the line in the crisis, helping others with the expectation that, when the chips are down, others will help those he loves.
Sang-Hwa does not hold a grudge against Seok Woo when Seok Woo locks his wife and him from a safe car, with zombies on their heels. Instead, he works with him, and doesn’t return a grave wrong with another one when he has the opportunity. On the contrary, he risks his life to save Seok Woo at a train station, when Woo is waylaid by zombies, and the other passengers are boarding the train. Sang-Hwa also is the last one on that train, fighting off the zombies so that others may board safely. He nearly doesn’t make it aboard the speeding vehicle.
Again and again, Sang-Hwa makes choices that are for the good of the group. He understands that sometimes a person must sacrifice to save the community.
Even his final acts are about saving others. When he asks Seok Woo to look after his wife and unborn child, it is with the full expectation and firm belief that people are good, and will act as he as acted, in defense of others families as well as his own.
Some may define this trait as being at the core of civilization itself. Survival is caring for your own family. In a crisis. Civilization is when you care for someone else’s family.
Seok’s second example or role model is Yon Suk. Some long-time horror fans may recognize his character type. He is basically “Mr. Harry Cooper” from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), a person with all the wrong instincts, who makes all the wrong decisions, but who covets authority, and holds many of the keys to power. He is an arrogant, biased, entitled little man who can’t see beyond his own immediate interests.
Yon Suk is connected to power in this film. He possesses insider knowledge about what areas of South Korea are safe and free from infection. And because he is well-dressed and a member of the business elite, the employees on the train listen to him; they treat him differently….better than the other passengers. They heed his advice. When he wants to get to Busan, the train leaves the station for Busan. When Yon Suk wants to lock the door of their train car from possible infected people, the door is locked, and those outsiders are jeopardized. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t actually sick.
Yon Suk represents the ultimate evolution of Seok Woo’s stated philosophy to his daughter: watch out only for yourself.
This “Me First” attitude actually leads to murder. Yon Suk doesn’t see other people as worthy of survival, or even consideration. He kills a conductor, so he can survive. He doesn’t help an engineer who jumps off the train to save him. He throws a cheerleader to the zombies, using her as a human shield, so he gets an extra minute to escape. Again and again, other people are but cannon fodder to ensure that he survives.
Everybody exists, for him, only as they can serve his needs. Their only value is how he can use them. Their lives don’t matter, except for how they can keep him alive. Yon Suk’s “Me First” attitude gets others killed, and becomes, finally, the greatest danger to the community that develops on the train. Very clearly, many people would survive the zombies, if they weren’t, metaphorically, knifed in the back by the enemy from within.
The two men I have described here represent huge contrasts. One puts himself in peril, consistently, to help others, and to care for families. One puts others in peril, to maintain his own existence.
Which one is civilized, again?
The wealthy businessman with all the right connections? Or the working class joe who loves his wife and (unborn) child unconditionally, and is willing to sacrifice himself for them, and for everyone else too?
And yet, Yon Suk is a human being. We must not forget that fact. He wants what we all want: to survive. But he doesn’t understand that we are stronger together than we are standing alone. That “Me First” or “My Country First” attitude isn’t going to cut it during the challenges we will face. Train to Busan characterizes Yon Suk as a man you will absolutely love to hate, a monster, a villain, a killer.
And then, out of the blue, it demonstrates mercy for him.
We finally see him for what he is: a scared child. A man who wants to go home. To see his Mother. We see that he is, ultimately, a spoiled child; one who never grew up and never came to understand that other people matter too. We can hate him, and yet feel pity for him as well.
Ultimately, Seok Woo makes his choice between role models -- an emotional choice -- that will leave you a bawling wreck. He knows who he wants to be, and how he wants his daughter, and others, to remember him.
When last we encounter him, in the film, he is remembering not his child’s musical recital that he missed because of his me first beliefs. Rather, he remembers the miracle of his child’s birth, and the feelings of connection that incredible event brought to him.
Seok Woo chooses his path, having seen it demonstrated on the train, and his humanity -- his sense of civilization -- is the very thing that finally leads his daughter and another man’s wife and child, to safety.
It’s a beautifully conceived and executed character arc, and just a piece of what makes Train to Busan so great.
Viewers of the film are encouraged, too, to look at the train as a microcosm for Western society. The zombies represent any danger from outside, trying to get in. Those safe in the car, unwilling to help the other refugees, represent the threat from within. They want to protect what they have at all costs, and are unable to see their fellow survivors as having the same rights that they do. Because those refugees may be “infected” (only a possibility) they are, essentially, second class citizens. The people inside can’t distinguish between the real threat (the zombies), and the families that require their help.
The intrigue on the car is in terms of human social behavior is intriguing, and the character arc is rewarding, but certainly horror fans will want to know if this film is scary. My answer is that the film is indeed scary, and more than that, spectacular. There are moments visualized in Train to Busan that will make your jaw drop.
At one point, three survivors make a run for a speeding train. The camera pulls back and upwards, retracting away from them, as zombies pour out of parked trains, and from other structures in the train yard. There are thousands of these monsters, all running after them. It’s a stunning vista.
And it only escalates from there, as zombies reach the train, and create, essentially, a carpet of living bodies, slowing the vehicle down.
In this film, zombies fall from helicopters overhead, break through plate glass walls, tumble onto the top of moving train cars, and swarm into every corner of the frame. This is the kind of insane, mass-attack carnage that I would have liked to see more of (but with less CGI imagery) in World War Z (2013). Yet the action scenes are not all set on a grand, jaw-dropping scale. Some are incredibly intimate. At one point, a trio of survivors must fight their way through three or four train cars filled with zombies, with very little in terms of effective shielding or weaponry. These scenes are riveting.
So, on a basic level, Train to Busan delivers the goods. It visualizes an incredible world in which zombies reign, and lives up to the highest ideals of Romero’s zombie movie template too: it’s really about our world, not a fictional one.
Train to Busan asks us to consider, when faced with terror within and without, who’s the real monster?
And when the crisis comes, who will you stand with? Civilization? Or those who only care about themselves?