Train to Busan: Humanity, Zombies, Terror, and Transformation

Korea continues to stun the global audience. It is inarguably known that Korean filmmakers and actors are making their own name in the entertainment industry for the past few decades.

They have had their own share of films and television series that made a mark on a lot of their audiences, and remakes in the Philippines (and other countries) have made this apparent. Train to Busan is one of these small hallmarks, one of those films that serve as proof that Korea continues to be a force to be reckoned with in terms of direction and screenplay, and that zombies can take an entirely new dimension.

One could say Train to Busan is a journey more than anything else. Cliche as it sounds, it subtly blends the typical “protagonist goes on an adventure” formula with a premise so natural its viewers would dismiss its rather obvious plot. It is within this oddly predictable premise that director and screenwriter Yeong Sang-ho shows off his skills at delivering social commentary.

The film is about a group of passengers inside a bullet train on its way to Busan, oblivious to the countrywide viral outbreak that has just shattered the country’s economic, social and political barriers. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo, The Crucible, The Suspect, Big) is a career-oriented father who works as a hedge fund manager in a company. He is taking his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an, Sports Day, Moonlight Palace) to Busan to meet her mother as a birthday gift.

(The premise itself is a hint. Anyone who is a sucker for “dark” films know where this is going)

Along with them are passengers from all walks of life. Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi, also The Crucible, Family Ties, Chaw, My Dear Desperado) is a pregnant woman with a still-unnamed child (at her behest) with bulky yet adorably awesome Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok, The Neighbor, Norigae, One on One).

There is also a delightfully-alive (no pun intended) cast of some elderly women (Titas of Busan?), a high school baseball team, other business men, and just passengers that are either tired of their work-filled day or cannot wait to get home. Now imagine if an infected got into the train – and this is where, lo and behold, the film’s inevitable $#!^-storm starts.

A New Dimension to Zombies

Did I mention it showed a new dimension to the realm of zombie entertainment? It did. Audiences are so used to watching films being inside the confines of a place that we tend to wait for our protagonists to lose their grip from humanity.

After all, the mere usage of a zombie as a plot point is a test of endurance. Just how long will someone last against an enemy that doesn’t feel any pain or, much worse, fear? What will the protagonist use as a method to escape the harrowing nightmare that he or she is in? How will the director show that the nightmare that are the zombies have some way of getting past the protagonist’s defenses and inevitably end his or her life?

Train of Busan twists this eventuality into something much more horrifying – what if you are in a train?

This is the reason why a lot of Filipinos (or anyone who has experienced riding a train) could easily relate to such the terrifying premise. How will you survive a zombie outbreak inside a public transportation medium – where everyone is confined in a limited space, with limited means of escape, while moving on a place you don’t even know is safe?

Do you know who to trust? Are you with people you trust? How will you get home, and how far are you willing to go to ensure your safety? In a society dominated by mobile technology and everything that is fast, just how fast can anyone go against a threat that ignores pain and fear?

This is worse than being trapped inside a mall, or being at home where everyone else is starting to turn. Being in a train means you are in a destination of sorts, where you only want to get home or to work and instead you are trapped inside a gripping reality where everyone else wants to take you down for being different. An easier metaphor is how Train to Busan places you in the shoes of your weak, vulnerable self and how life thrusts you in the reality no one ever wants to accept.

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Train to Taft and the other memes are not simply there to joke around. It shows an inevitable nightmare that we can all experience during a zombie outbreak. Traffic in the Philippines and, worse, its horrible mass transportation system, is an eventuality we have to consider – and it’s a terrifying thing just to think about it. Is now the time for transportation officials to improve the MRT? Probably.

We’ve all been there – and we’ve all thought about it at some point. How would we fare inside an MRT if it happens? Or in an LRT? Or in the PNR? Train to Busan will show us it will not be a good ride, and nowhere is safe.

 

A Family Film (With Zombies)

Yeon Sang-ho has done an excellent job establishing a good social commentary using the film. Everyone who’s been into a zombie franchise will know what I’m talking about. Behind every zombie film is a dark view on humanity and its dependence on mob mentality – and how, deep inside, everyone can just get too angry to bear.

And we can’t really blame everyone else. It just so happens that we tend to go where everyone else is going, and despite knowing that not everything everyone does is right, we do it anyway. It’s just how we tick.

So the survivors – the outliers, those that are given the chance to make a change – will have to make that choice. And what they do with their lives – eventually succumb to their primal urge to survive, or try to retain their humanity – will cost them more than what they have thought.

This is why films like Train to Busan tend to be predictable from the very start. There are just bits of dialogue that will give away the ending, and there are just parts of the film that are so beautifully crafted and shot that it will appear as a family film with zombies.

(Believe me, the ending will be much more easier to accept if you think Train to Busan is a family film).

The soundtrack blends excellently with some elements of the film. At one point it’s an effective thriller, and then comedy, and then a heart-wrenching drama about sacrifice and honoring our promises. Believe me, there is a point where zombie films that become too realistic (the unbearable silence, the bleakness of everything) can become too “fantastical” to bear.

 

Yeon Sang-ho’s impressive portfolio does not end with Train to Busan, though. He is best known for a few animated films, such as The King of Pigs and The Fake, released in 2011 and 2013. The King of Pigs has received critical acclaim for its portrayal of violence, bullying and the lifelong impact of oppression towards others. It is also the first Korean animated film to be invited to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was shown in the 2012 Directors’ Fortnight sidebar.

His second animated film, The Fake, was a critique of organized religion. It’s about a cult leader that exploits rural villages for their compensation money, and how no one else believes a local that discovers the horrible truth.

Yeon Sang-ho’s third animated feature is the prequel of Train to Busan, Seoul Station. He wanted to “depict” society’s “collective rage” by making a film where zombies are among the people “protesting for the democratization of Korea.”

 

Being human

Films like Train to Busan that lets us see zombie films as a theatrical “performance” lets us see the hidden reality of life with a color palette we have never seen before. The film reveals that life shows its true colors when we are at our lowest – and that appreciating what we have in life comes after we conquer those hardships. It’s a sickening, masochistic mentality that the film wants us to accept, no matter what the cost. That we can be heroes, villains, brave, afraid and just, well, human.

There is a hidden beauty to the way the zombies are depicted. No two zombies from every franchise, film, or game are the same – and they all have their perks and weaknesses. Train to Busan’s “zombies” are people that turn rabid because of an unidentified outbreak. They turn pale, their veins bulge out, and their eyes turn white. As typical zombies go, they roam about and go wild at the sight of prey – but that’s it. The sight of prey. Our protagonists slowly realize that the film’s “zombies” only rely on sight, and are almost virtually useless in darkness.

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They also appear to only be attracted to those unaffected by the blight, and will only bite – not eat. This is an interesting mechanic to the zombie “plague,” as this resembles something more in the likes of mass hysteria than sheer cannibalism. But what has attracted me the most are the moments right before their “transformation.”

There are some iconic lines and scenes in the film that show the hallmarks of “change” in the human psyche. These are fundamental elements of how we treat life, and it’s an amazing way of looking at things. It is implied that Seok-woo’s mother has become one of the infected during a phone call, but her transition from a worried mother to a vengeful in-law in mere seconds is a subtly horrifying display.

At the end, another person’s realization that he is infected had him slowly descend into disbelief, and then into full transformation. And lastly, the final sacrifice began as what perhaps is one of the most wonderful moments in one’s life.

The three emotions showed in the paragraphs before (anger, fear and happiness) are three very fundamental emotions that we could say direct us to a lot of life-changing decisions. This is why a lot of grown-ups tell us not to do anything when we’re mad, and why a lot of stupid decisions in horror films are done when someone is afraid. These are emotions we just can’t control, and this is what can separate us from whatever mentality the mob wants us to follow.

Train to Busan is a short trip to our own humanity, and it asks the question: What would you do in their place?

 

In the end, Train to Busan can appear like your typical zombie flick. In fact, one could say it is not as good as other “hallmarks” of the global film industry. And this is one of those times that I’ll tell you, the film isn’t meant to be treated that way. Train to Busan is one of those films that will get you to invest in something you can just as easily predict.

But the real horror lies in how the film shows you just how terrifying your predictions can come to reality. And how horrifying humanity could get once we’ve “lost” it.

Rating: 4.3/5

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Rhenn Taguiam
Rhenn Taguiam

Rhenn Taguiam is a frustrated journalist with a knack for comic books and video games. He likes pizza and pasta, and has an uncontrollable urge to gush over anything Super Sentai, Star Trek or X-Men. He is currently on his way to get his Master’s Degree – unless he creates his own video game or graphic novel first.


Rhenn Taguiam

Rhenn Taguiam

Rhenn Taguiam is a frustrated journalist with a knack for comic books and video games. He likes pizza and pasta, and has an uncontrollable urge to gush over anything Super Sentai, Star Trek or X-Men. He is currently on his way to get his Master’s Degree – unless he creates his own video game or graphic novel first.

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