So, when I first heard that this film was coming out, I desperately wanted it to provide a different cultural take on the zombie figure that has been an American horror film staple since George A. Romero’s small-budget, B-movie zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968.
When Night came out, it made waves for various reasons. Most significant of which was its progressive choice of protagonist and bleak ending. Duane Jones who plays Ben, the film’s black protagonist, survives the horror of the zombie outbreak only to be casually picked off the next day by a band of White men with guns who mistake him for a zombie.
When Romero made the sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), all anyone could talk about was how the insatiable appetite of the zombie is a reflection of our own consumerist culture, a point that is clearly made by setting the bulk of the action inside a mall. For more on zombies and consumerism check out S. Harper’s essay, “Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate.”
Other notable zombie films include Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie classic, 28 Days Later which gave us the original running zombies that made us shit our pants. But also symbolised, speed, rapid development and how we’re just moving too fast for our own good.
To this famous array of zombie films I also want to add Warm Bodies (2013), not the best zombie film by anyone’s standards, but a significant one because of its strange mix of genres. As an action-horror-Romance film, it is as if the film was made in response to how over the years the gap between the human and the zombie had gotten so small we now have to find a way to redeem the zombie figure so we can go on living with ourselves. The TV series iZombie (2015- ) does pretty much the same thing too with its zombie protagonist, Olivia Moore (Rose McIver).
So I guess the point I’m trying to set up with this spiel is that the zombie figure is an incredibly versatile figure and I was really looking forward to a different cultural take on the zombie with Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016).
And I’m so pleased and so happy to say that it delivers (probably more than I’m able to encapsulate here because my expectations were so high and the film met most of them too).
So here are some of the things I really enjoyed about the film (Warning: SPOILERS!!!):
- It’s not about consumerism anymore but it’s about conformity: As a S. Korean film (set in S. Korea, produced in S. Korea, directed by a S. Korean), the context just adds to the film’s message in a way that even if the exact same film was made and produced elsewhere, it wouldn’t be the same film. Anyway, where did I get this idea of the film being about conformity from? The first wave of zombies you get up close and personal with are all wearing uniforms. Train conductor uniforms, High School Student uniforms, military uniforms. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how uniforms and uniformity erase individuality and threaten to turn people into an unthinking zombie mob.
- Contemporary update to the zombie mythos: Part of zombie films is the changing point of origin of the spread. Is it voodoo, like in the pre-Night zombie films? Is it something introduced into the water like in The Crazies (2010) from a government experiment gone wrong? Is it the Umbrella Corporation-funded virus research that gets out like in the Resident Evil franchise (2002 -2016)? Where the zombie comes from reflects what society fears the most at that moment. And in Train there’s a phone call that implicates the protagonist, Seok Woo’s (Yoo Gong), who is a fund manager and his company. Ah… we’ve finally reached the point where the economic machinery, Wall Street and all the recent problems with the financial systems of the world are now (in)directly responsible for the zombie outbreak. Nice. Frankly, it’s been a long time coming.
- The play on Sight and Vision in the zombies from Train: Every zombie franchise will try and characterize their zombies differently. I’ve already mentioned running zombies in 28 Days Later, and the thinking, compassionate zombies that can become human again in Warm Bodies. The Walking Dead (2010- ), I believe has zombies with an acute sense of hearing and smell. Train establishes the zombies’ poor sense of sight and creates a number of high-tension set pieces around this plot point. But what is truly wonderful is how it is used near the end of the film in contemplation of what one might see in their final moments before turning into a zombie. Very melodramatic, but a good melodramatic. Very different from the kind of melodrama that comes with the excessive use of slow motion that silent screaming because of the cutting out of diegetic sound, which this film comes dangerously close to overusing.
At this point I want to say that I have yet to give away any real spoilers to the film, I think? But if you read on there’ll definitely be spoilers because I’m going to get into character/ characterisation and the ending.
- Of Character Growth and Fine Acting: Yoo Gong’s fund manager Seok Woo experiences a tremendous amount of character growth that is extremely pleasurable and fulfilling to watch, especially when he’s played off the more likable Sang Hwa played by Ma Dong-Seok. Fund manager has to learn how to be less self-serving in order to survive this zombie apocalypse and in a poignant moment in the second half of the film he does. In this scene, Seok Woo grabs Yong Suk (Kim Ui-Seong), an elderly gentleman and another suit wearing corporate type, punches him out, and accuses him of being an asshole for not opening the door earlier. The close-up shot in this scene shows some very fine acting on the part of Yoo Gong because we get multiple layers of horror. Horror over how quickly, easily and uselessly the life of a key character has been snuffed out; and the horrific realization that if he didn’t change his ways, Seok Woo might as well be looking in the mirror.
- Gender and violence and the new world order: The film also does something very interesting with gender. The excitement from the action sequences that characterize the bulk of the film are male-dominated and driven by three fairly likable male protagonists. There’s even a bromantic tete-a-tete that takes place inside one of the washrooms onboard the train as they hide out from the zombies outside. Yet, all three male protagonists, tainted by the extreme violence that is required of them to survive the zombie apocalypse, must die together with the previous world order in order for the new world, symbolized by the child and pregnant mother who survive to the end, to be born. The split between male and female protagonists is unmistakably clear but as to what to make of it I suppose more research is needed. But if I had to hazard a guess, the old world order is a violent, class-oriented, patriarchal system based on exploitation, unthinking conformity and untrustworthy figures of authority (all foregrounded in various scenes throughout the film). And the new world order, represented by the thinking military man who chooses NOT to shoot at the approaching survivors despite orders from HQ to go ahead, is a representation of a more interconnected and compassionate humanist society where individuals make clear-minded decisions, act responsibly and don’t just follow orders.
- Ending and Homage to Romero: I love how the ending flirts with recreating the bleak ending from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead but then decides to forego this. It’s also a very dense and layered ending because the return to the motif of sight and vision. The military snipers guarding the tunnel entrance almost shoot the pregnant mother and child because of the difficulty of getting visual confirmation over whether the approaching figures are zombies or survivors. The fact that confirmation comes in the form of the child singing the song from her recital (a plot point established earlier in the film that lends the film a lovely framing narrative) creates a thematic coherence in the film about family and human connection.
So to tie everything together with what I mean when I say I feel Train has delivered in terms of a different cultural zombie is this:
It has the zombie hoard stand in for the problems with conformity instead of consumerism which is a distinct quality of Asian societies. It gives the film a distinctly melodramatic treatment that I’ve always associated with Kdramas & Jdramas. And it’s turned the fight against the zombie into a class-related struggle where the zombie is born out of the excesses of the rich, instead of a race-related one as seen in Night.
So yeah, that’s my two cents about zombies and Train to Busan, all 1500 words of it.