The “Train to Busan” was a blockbuster success, with close to 10 million teenagers viewing it in the cinemas. For what it’s worth, it’s also a very good reflection of some values that are key to Korean society. And you expect it to be so, as it was an out-of-competition screening at the Cannes Film Festival. I aim to try to understand the film as an expression of “national” values, as the director himself had attempted to Koreanize the zombie concept itself.
“It is a genre very familiar in the West but not so much in Korea. I wondered how it would turn out if I brought the zombie concept and made it in a Korean style,” said director Yeon Sang-ho of “Train to Busan” during a press conference held Tuesday in Seoul.
SPOILER ALERT. For those who have not watched the movie, the post below contains information about the movie that may ruin your experience.
A quick word on its cinematic excellence. While most zombie movies hover about with plot development, Yeon Sang-ho’s film is excellent because of the rapid rate at which things develop. Following an opening with some comedic elements, we then spend almost the rest of the film on board the train, and it is relentless from thereon in. Each train compartment became a scene for zombie attacks to occur; framing each attack in a tighter space makes it harder for the viewer to breathe, raising the stakes and tensions as we go along. One zombie attack follows another almost rapidly, the only respite comes only right at the end when Seong Kyeong and Seok-woo’s child Su-an are finally safe. Many are sacrificed along the way, reflecting human selfishness, appealing to the mob’s fear and an inherent class warfare.
Busan in National Consciousness
To me, it came as no surprise that the first “successful” defence against the zombie apocalypse was at Busan. Busan is not only geographically significant as a southern city that allows one to flee from the “spread” of the virus from the northern areas of South Korea; Busan has a significant place in the South Korean consciousness, having been successfully defended by the South Koreans and UN forces in the Korean War (1950 – 1953). Coalition forces managed to hold out at the Busan Perimeter in 1950, after the rest of the country was initially rapidly taken over by the North Koreans. Many surviving the initial North Korean invasion fled down south to Busan. Busan was also home to democratic revolutions in the 1960s to 1980s.
In essence, modern South Korea had its beginnings in Busan. In the same way, with the humans being able to hold out at Busan, it would not be unwise to highlight Train to Busan as another movie that portrays Busan to be a key element of the South Korean nation post-war – to defend Busan from the zombies is akin to defending elements of the South Korean nation.
A Rise in Anti-Chaebol-ism?
Given that the Freedom House has recently decreased its ratings of Korean civil liberties in recent years, the movie can be seen as popular expression of anti-conglomerate sentiments in South Korea. The recent presidencies of Lee Myungbak and Park Geun-hye have all restored more right-wing elements to Korean society. For instance, Lee Myungbak, himself a former CEO of Hyundai, had reversed the progress made by former president Roh Moo-hyun in challenging the establishment. Youth protests in recent years have also largely been centred around what they perceive to be a deterioration of the democratization process that began in 1987.
In Train to Busan, two scenes reflect this new reality that is developing in Korea. I point to Seok Woo’s (GONG Yoo) attempt to wash his hands of the blood stains from the fighting. Taken from a different perspective, the attempt to cleanse himself comes after a call from his subordinate that essentially sought to absolve themselves of responsibility. His failure to do so completely thus places blame on Big Pharma and other conglomerates that have caused Korea to be infested with zombies – any redemption that he receives later on in the film should not be seen as separate from the devastation his firm has caused with association to this apocalypse.
The second of the key scenes that encapsulates these sentiments is the film’s main antagonist Yong-suk (KIM Eui-sung), a white-collared CEO. Sacrificing the service worker to survive, Yong-suk plays on mass hysteria to save his own skin, getting the mob to turn on our own protagonists. Yong-suk epitomizes the kind of rich, arrogant executive which anti-capitalists and anti-conglomerates have grown to loathe. It was he who broke up the hope of the future, pushing Jin-hee (AHN So-hee) into the path of the chasing zombies, and denying any opportunity for a potential fully-fledged love-line, so often the symbol of youth, to develop.
A bit of respite for the CEO occurs when one sees the lost boy in him that appears as he begins his transformation process – that underneath it all, there exists a human inside waiting to be saved.
The Family Unit: Father, Mother and Child
It is worth noting that the two father figures in this film lose their lives in defending the mother Seong Kyeong and Seok-woo’s child Su-an. Admittedly, these two fathers come from different backgrounds – Sang-hwa a “thug” with moral values, Seok-woo a “blood sucker”. Throughout the first part of the movie (before the zombie outbreak became really apocalyptic on the train), Sang-hwa (MA Dong-sik) reminded viewers what he originally thought of Seok Woo’s occupation – that they are “blood suckers”. Undoubtedly, this enhances the anti-conglomerate feelings that are boiling over within society. But while they deal with the zombies that will not change back, we see a humanization of Seok-woo occur, transforming him from his “blood-sucker” identity. We see that he transforms from the selfish jerk that he was (looking after himself and his daughter) to one that cared for others. Even so, it is his decision to travel with his daughter to Busan that gives us the basis to say he fulfilled his duty as a father. While he might not be able to appreciate his daughter’s other needs (such as presents)
A closer look at would allow us to interpret through a neo-Confucian lens the role of the fathers – both made sacrifices to fulfil their role as provider. Sang-hwa looked after the family as the Father by sacrificing himself to allow the others to survive, and provided a name for their future child. Seok-woo too, at the end, allows himself to be bitten so as to save Seong Kyeong and Su-an, making the difficult decision to be separated from his daughter despite him having finally revealed his happiest moment in his life to be the times he spent with his daughter. A source of redemption for Seok-woo would be when the film maker deliberately does not make it obvious if he falls of the train because of “choice” or his jerking (which occurs when one transforms into a zombie), heightening the emotional tension in the scene.
Another key cinematic moment for me was Su-an’s recitation piece. The song in question was Aloha Oe, a farewell song inspired by Colonel James Harbottle Boyd’s embrace of one of Princess Lili’uokalani, her sister or a young lady at the ranch. While the song ironically is only fully performed upon the physical loss of her father – she had wanted to perform this in its entirety for her father – singing that song allows her to reconcile her differences with her father, allowing her to feel full despite not being able to physically meet her father again. And it is this song that helps her to be identified as a human, not as an infected to be shot, thus saving her life – like her father did with his sacrifice – and enabling her to live as her father’s daughter, bidding farewell not to her father’s memory, but to the differences she may have had with her dad as depicted at the start of the film.
Edit: This seems to make all the more sense when you consider “Seoul Station” – The Korean Times has a great comparison about familial values between Yeon Sang-ho’s two movies: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2016/08/141_211785.html