Blog Directory CineVerse: All aboard for zombie mayhem--South Korean style

All aboard for zombie mayhem--South Korean style

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Fast-moving zombies invade a bullet train: Sounds like a great premise for a modern horror film. And it certainly is, as evidenced by Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan from 2016, which has quickly become a critical and fan favorite among fright films. Our CineVerse group took a ride aboard this runaway thriller last week and arrived at the following conclusions (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How is Train to Busan different from other zombie films, and what did you find unexpected, refreshing, memorable, or distinctive about it?

  • It entraps its vulnerable characters within a confined space, in this case a high-speed train.
  • Although it wasn’t the first to do so, this film features rapid-moving zombies instead of slow, shambling creatures.
  • It introduces a new tweak to the zombie mythos: the living dead need to see their intended victims clearly, which means darkness is their enemy.
  • For a zombie film and horror movie, the emotional stakes are surprisingly high. The filmmakers slather on sentimentality, sorrow, and emotional trauma by giving us characters we care about and killing them off in devastating ways. The anguished cries of Seok-Woo and his daughter at the conclusion are incredibly moving.
  • There are several outstanding set pieces and action sequences, particularly in the scene where the train occupants depart at the station but must rush back to the safety of the train when pursued by zombies; later when the three men must fight three train cars loaded with the living dead to reunite with their loved ones; and toward the end when the last survivors make daring escapes from beneath the wrecked train and onto a getaway train.
  • Train to Busan has a political subtext that comments on the corruption and controversy swirling around the South Korean government and its then-President Park Genu-hye, who was eventually removed from office after public uproar later in the same year this film was released.

Major themes

  • Selfish self-preservation at all costs versus altruism, teamwork, and selfless sacrifices. Train to Busan suggests that, for the human race to survive, we need to think of others first, cooperate as a group, and make beneficent self-sacrifices. Consider that the final three survivors endured mostly because others acted heroically and gave their lives for their survival.
    • Seok-Woo, who earlier tells his daughter to “only watch out for yourself,” is humbled and changed by her unselfishness and compassion.
  • The benefits of active versus passive parenting. Seok-Woo isn’t present much in his daughter Soo-An’s life, and she’s resentfully aware of this. But by forgoing a day at work to escort her to her mother, remaining by her side as a stalwart protector through the zombie invasion, and ultimately sacrificing himself for her survival, she comes to love and appreciate her father and his character is redeemed.
  • Unchecked capitalistic greed can lead to catastrophe. It’s hinted in the film that Seok-Woo’s soulless fund-managing on behalf of his avaricious clients can cause others to suffer, and the zombie outbreak may have been caused indirectly by lax or hubristic practices by Seok-Woo’s employer.
  • Human beings can be more evil and dangerous than movie monsters. The most disgusting and despicable character in Train to Busan isn’t a zombie at all (at least, until his demise)—it’s the businessman Yon-suk, who evades death and minimizes his risk by treating others as expendable and manipulating the guilable.
  • The importance, and vulnerability, of the nuclear family. It’s no trivial matter that the final three survivors are a man, his daughter, and a pregnant woman who becomes the girl’s surrogate mother. Collectively, they stand a better chance of survival. The father must forfeit his life so that the other two can endure, and in so doing ensure continuity of the nuclear family.
  • Xenophobia, class warfare, and distrust of the government.

Similar works

  • Snowpiercer
  • 28 Days Later, World War Z, Zombieland, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and other modern living dead films featuring fast-moving zombies
  • George Romero’s original zombie trilogy: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead
  • Action thrillers in which the characters are trapped aboard a vessel, including Snakes on a Plane, Horror Express, Howl, and Alien Express
  • Contemporary disaster films like San Andreas, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow
  • Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake featuring a similar absent father character who must protect his children from disaster
  • The Mist
  • The Cassandra Crossing
  • Children of Men

Other films by Yeon Sang-ho

  • Seoul Station, and Peninsula, the respective prequel and sequel to Train to Busan
  • Psychokinesis
  • The King of Pigs, and The Fake, two earlier animated features

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