Social Commentary in Train to Busan

Regardless of your opinion of the year overall, 2016 gave us an interesting range of great films. Everyone and their mother has been putting out their own lists of favorite films of the year, something that I won’t formally burden you with. I will, however, sift through some of the films that have been taking top spots in many of the lists, and give my personal take on the ones that I though stood out.

Train to Busan is a superb zombie thriller from South Korea that certainly flew under my radar during its release. I had heard about through the multitude of best-of lists, both horror and in general. Animated film director Sang-ho Yeon’s live-action debut premiered at Cannes Film Festival, and it absolutely earns its spot among the best of 2016, and If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

There are many great things about this film, the most important in my opinion being the strict adherence to the sole purpose of the zombie folklore: social commentary. And boy is it heavy in this one. The narrative of Train to Busan can be broken down fairly simplistically: an epidemic is sweeping through the major cities in South Korea, and a train full of people are trying to survive and make it to the city with the smallest threat. The setting of the train is interesting because while cinematically and historically trains have always been a symbol of motion and expansion across vast landscapes, being on a train during an outbreak like this proves to be very debilitating and claustrophobic.


The train’s structure also lends itself to help visualize the film’s main critique of society’s class differences. The film targets men who hold positions of financial prosperity and frames them as the enemy through different perspectives. The main story centers on a man named Seok Woo and his troubled relationship with his daughter, Soo-an, solely based on his lack of involvement due to his career as a fund manager. The two of them are en route to see Soo-an’s mother when the outbreak occurs. Throughout the myriad of zombie-movie-esque moments, there are pieces of dialogue that make it apparent that Seok Woo’s main priority is the safety of himself and his daughter, with little consideration to the band of travelers that they have become a part of by default. Another member of the group identifies himself as the COO of a transportation company, and he is constantly shown using other people as bait to prevent being attacked and during the climax he tries to cut off half of the travelers from the front train car that seems to be the safest, out of fear of them being contaminated. The relationship between these men of wealth and power and the other survivors is a great parallel to the struggle of the survivors against the zombies. While the father (spoilers, obviously) eventually comes around and realizes his faults before succumbing to the infection, the other man doesn’t even come close.


Another thing that stood out to me in the film was the fact that while being a zombie film where there were survivors, with a run time of almost two full hours, it managed to contain ONE GUN THAT FIRED ZERO ROUNDS. Not a single bullet was fired in this film which intrigued me to my core. There was definitely an abundance of zombie violence and gore in this film, but none of it was caused by a gun. In the seemingly endless sea of zombie movies and television series, guns are always treated as the most important commodity. I cannot say for sure whether this was a decision based on practicality of the setting, or if the filmmaker was genuinely trying to send a message about gun violence, but I inherently believe the latter, due to the heavily progressive overall tone of the film.

Train to Busan was a superb entrance into the zombie ethos. It felt like a very genuine rehashing of the classic counterculture message that the zombie movie originally set out to send. The effects are outstanding and the performances are stellar. The film does a spectacular job of portraying its carnage and gore in a very beautiful way. If you have yet to see this one, do yourself a favor and check it out.

-By Kirk Yoshonis


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