Yes, it’s another zombie movie. With the inescapable presence of both the coronavirus and information about it, apocalyptic plague narratives featuring this particular breed of the undead have probably entered into the minds of many as we binge-watch Netflix in quarantine. As symbols of biological disaster, zombies, in broad terms, often spell out the quick spread of disease and the need for people to work together to survive.
But anyone who faithfully watches zombie films knows there are two kinds of zombies: slow and (you guessed it) fast. While it may depend on the specific work in question, slow zombies often seem to stand for a sort of cultural malaise, while fast zombies carry a fervor with them that seems to encourage notions of anger and rage that develop between divided groups.
The latter is the case in Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, a film centered on speed: ravenous, quick-moving zombies aboard a speeding train in South Korea. Much like Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean train-based sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer, Yeon’s film targets capitalism and, more broadly, the individualist “every man for himself” spirit that can come about in times of crisis. Heroes arise in Train to Busan, but not the glorified individual often seen in American films. Success only comes to those who take the time to help others, not leaving people behind because of the apparent liabilities presented by the vulnerable, whether they be a child, elderly or pregnant (there always seems to be a pregnant woman in apocalyptic films).
When the undead start flooding the train, businessman Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) is only interested in the survival of himself and his daughter, Soo Ahn (Kim Soo-an). An encounter with Sang Hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Sung Gyeong (Jung Yu-mi), however, leads the young Soo Ahn to tearfully counsel her father on his selfishness. A bond forms between these four survivors and several other characters who come together, separated from the rest of the passengers after a brief stop at a station erroneously assumed to be safe. Meanwhile, the rest of the passengers come under the pseudo-leadership of another selfish “hero”-type, businessman Yong Suk (Kim Eui-sung), who claims to want to keep everyone safe but, when push comes to shove, is really out for himself and his own interests.
The conflict between survivors becomes just as important, then, as the conflict between the living and the dead as both the train and the film race through their thrilling (and heartrending) horror setpieces to a place of somber optimism for times of crisis.
Train to Busan certainly doesn’t reinvent the zombie movie wheel, instead choosing to focus its energy on delivering well-honed versions of classic ideas and tropes of the genre. The ragtag group of survivors at the center of the film are made up mostly of types rather than fully fleshed-out characters, but these trope-y figures are presented such that the audience can still make emotional connections.
Since, at this point, most viewers understand what’s at stake in zombie flicks, the film doesn’t need to spend time elaborating on the impending doom that the others will face at Suk’s self-serving nature or the hope represented by Soo Ahn’s innocence and Gyeong’s pregnancy (quite literally carrying optimism and hope for the future). The film knows it can rely on collective knowledge, rehashing trope themes in an efficient manner and utilizing them to make its point.
The action of the film is fast-paced, with tense sequences ranging from chase scenes to full-on zombie fights (watching Ma Dong-seok punch zombies to death never gets old) to tense scenes of sneaking past vicious hordes in rare moments of silent darkness. In the human-on-human conflict that escalates in the later sections of the film, too, there is a similar tension, and the thematic significance of Suk’s selfishness brings about some nuanced commentary on capitalism and systems of individualism. The power that one person (not uncoincidentally a businessman) can hold over the “undesirables” becomes a powerful image in one of the film’s most striking scenes (more on that to come…).
Not everyone will appreciate the film’s “stock narrative” approach, however finely tuned the unsurprising character roles and plot points are in Yeon’s hands. If you’re looking for something new and exciting in the zombie genre, there probably won’t be enough here to keep your attention beyond the fun backdrop of a moving train.
In terms of style, the film’s approach to the “look” of zombies is not new either. Despite some creepy close-ups of rotting faces and stringy, blood-matted hair accompanied by grating groans, the impact of the zombies starts to wane as the film goes on. Without a striking or more unique visual to carry the latter half of the film, the threat the zombies pose no longer comes from fear-inducing, gorey close-ups, but rather from sheer numbers of the undead—quantity over quality. And speaking of visuals, the CG special effects in the film are sometimes jarringly obvious, dotting a picturesque city landscape with pixelated fires to simulate destruction. They certainly don’t wreck the believability of the film, but these moments do take a bit away from the overall enjoyment of the film.
The dual conflicts in this film crash headlong into each other in one particularly striking scene that pits zombies against survivors and survivors against each other as Woo and Soo Ahn’s small group of survivors arrive at the front of the train to reunite with the rest of the train’s surviving passengers. Beset by undead hordes on one side, Hwa holds the door closed for the group as the larger group of passengers holds the door closed on the other side, suspicious after Suk tells them the smaller group might be infected.
The cross-cutting between these two doorways reveals an unsettling parallel between the undead hordes and the survivors just looking for safety. The zombie army, those who were not saved, are being barred entry in the same way that those who are currently seeking safety are and for the same reason: the safety of those who do not want to risk themselves for others. Guided by Suk’s selfishness and paranoia, the larger group at the front of the train is pushed to pursue their own self-interest over helping those in need.
Ultimately, though, it is the survivors led by Suk who end up looking more like the undead, their faces warped by fear and rage as they yell at the other survivors to keep out of their supposed safe haven. These are zombies of another kind, echoing that aforementioned significance of the fast zombie: the rage-fueled groupthink that leads those in power to exclude those whose survival poses any liability or threat to the rest.
As potent a metaphor as this scene is for the class divisions created under a capitalist system or the greed-driven actions of those in power to self-sustain, it also, more broadly, gestures toward the prevalence of individualism, especially during times of crisis. With the coronavirus pandemic having brought the world to a standstill, there is, of course, bound to be a sense of self-preservation in the minds of the public, especially considering that we are not even able to go out and see the people whose lives are affected—some far more than others—by the virus.
It isn’t that self-preservation is bad, but the film articulates that the only way we (as in, the people and the society they make up) survive only when we help each other do so. The rush to get back to normal is one motivated by many factors, but it is a desire that is largely based in self-preservation, a natural response elevated to a level that might be called selfishness by some.
The fact that the film takes place on a train is not incidental to this individualist reading of the plot, as the cars are all connected and what affects one car ultimately affects the entire train. Just as movement of the train itself relies on each car, movement within the train also relies on the safety of each car, as the characters can only move through the train in a linear fashion when it is in motion. If there are zombies in one car that they need to pass through, there is no way around. Each car determines the safety of the entire train, just as each individual case of the zombie plague impacts the safety of everyone around.
Moving forward into the uncertain future of the COVD-19 pandemic, there is a temptation to restore what came before as quickly as possible, especially out of fear for what will happen to the economy or civil liberties (well, so they say). Sang-ho’s film may not be the most nuanced chastisement of the selfish individual, or of an overly capitalist society, but it, in some sense, speaks to the way in which different societies handle crisis. A country like South Korea (and others, including Taiwan) has seen minimal casualties and relatively little social and economic disruption from COVID-19, and while the differences in population, size and infrastructure that naturally make the U.S. and South Korea a flawed comparison, one can’t help but note that we don’t see raging protests against wearing masks and infringements of “personal freedom” in East Asia.
An entire system of cultural beliefs and values lies underneath the surface—and not always clear-cut as to right or wrong—but those who have a view of the collective, whose existence within a larger society is embedded within a cultural consciousness, have tended to fare better in a life-and-death crisis such as COVID-19.
Whatever our differences, we have to recognize that acting solely out of individualistic viewpoints during crisis leaves people behind, including those who are at a higher risk to contract the virus or die from it, those who have the virus and those who are in essential positions and rely on others quarantining to avoid the virus. Each car of the train needs to cooperate in order to keep the whole train safe. Protecting one’s own interests is a natural response, but it is up to us to question that response and find empathy for others in these trying times. We may not be on the brink of a zombie apocalypse, but the future very much lies in our hands.