Warning: this review will spoil the movie.
The other day, my friends and I watched “Train To Busan,” a Korean zombie horror-thriller about a negligent hedge fund manager father, Seok-Woo, and his daughter, Su-an, and their quest for survival in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Su-an’s parents are divorced On the way, Seok-woo and Su-an encounter a fighter and his pregnant wife, a homeless man, and a high school baseball player and his girlfriend. All members of this group work together, put their lives at risk, and sacrifice for each other to help each other survive to the next safe point.
Although the “World War Z”-like zombie apocalypse theme is certainly not something I’d never seen before, the execution of “Train to Busan” in its development of its main characters and exploration of class allegory made the movie stand out above any other zombie apocalypse movie I’ve ever seen.
For me, the most compelling part of the movie was the change, growth, and development of protagonist Seok-Woo. According to historian film-maker Ken Burns, a successful and complicated story will always have flawed heroes and compelling villains, and that is certainly the case in Seok-Woo. In the words of critic Helen O’Hara, he “emerges as a resourceful, determined lead, growing from a disengaged workaholic willing to sacrifice others to protect himself into a more recognisable hero.” Numerous times, Seok-Woo urges Su-an to stop caring so much about others and try to save herself. Throughout the first half of the film, the fighter appropriately gifts Seok-Woo nicknames of a flawed hero: “asshole” and “jackass”.
At the very end, Seok-Woo becomes a father that saves the lives of the people in his group to the rest of his capacity. Once he is bitten by a zombie, he tells his daughter in an emotion-filled moment that he loves her for the last time, and throws himself off the train right before becoming infected.
The antagonist in the movie, Yong-suk, presents a little too allegorically as the underbelly of human nature, willing to sacrifice anybody for his own survival and gain. He is the CEO of prestigious company Stallion Express, and often makes the situation worse for others in his selfish attempts to survive. In a movie about a zombie apocalypse, I found it compelling that the main villain wasn’t a zombie, but another human being also vouching for survival. He fails to allow Seok-Woo and Su-an into a safe train car and even persuades the rest of the car to barricade the door so Seok-Woo’s group isn’t allowed in.
He constantly throws people towards the infected zombies so he can have more time to survive, and somehow always fails to close doors to block the zombies from encroaching on the other protagonists. In a way, he is too allegorical of a villain. The fact that my friends and I failed to feel any sympathy for Yong-suk when he was just another person trying to survive amidst a zombie apocalypse shows that he isn’t too compelling of a villain, but merely a plot device to move the story forward and make the situation worse.
Perhaps Yong-Suk, as the villain, was compelling in the allegory he conveyed. He is the selfish and non-convicting part of human nature, the part of all of us that just looks out for our self-interest, that really just wants to survive. And it’s important to not pin all the blame and evil in the movie on Yong-Suk, as he would not have had his level of power and influence on the train had it not been for the compliance of others around him. He believed and acted as if his life mattered more than those of Seok-Woo, Su-an, and the main party, and manipulated the rest of the train’s passengers into believing so and acting like it, as well.
The fundamental conflict of the movie is not between human and zombie, but rather human and human, and that’s a departure from many movies I’ve previously seen in the zombie genre.
And the best stories not only do justice to the principal protagonist and antagonist, but also its minor characters, as well. I believe that “Train to Busan” does this through two characters: the fighter and the PTSD-ridden homeless man. The two people are instrumental to Seok-woo and Su-an surviving, and do so by sacrificing themselves to distract the zombies so the others can survive. The fighter is the character that catalyzes Seok-Woo’s change, validating his efforts as a father, but also acknowledging that he can probably spend more time taking care and spending time with his daughter. The homeless man overcomes his paralysis and holds off a group of zombies long enough for the pregnant woman and Su-an to escape under falling debris.
In the film are strong undertones of class warfare. Yong-Suk is an irredeemable CEO and heartless upper-class man only interested in his own self-interest, but as is Seok-Woo at the beginning of the film. His story, rather, is a transfiguration of his priorities and morals from upper-class workaholism, cruelty, and negligence (his company was responsible for funding a biotech leak that led to the zombie outbreak) to Christ-like figure willing to sacrifice for the person he loves the most. Seok-Woo’s transfiguration is further aided by the moral compass of his fellow survivors. Finally, when he sacrifices himself, he realizes that his work is not the most important thing in the world; his family is.
Seok-Woo is a decent and good person corrupted by society’s poor values and priorities, and it is only faced with a traumatic crisis in this zombie apocalypse that he redeems himself and awakens his identity.
In these events and in the developments in “Train to Busan” are what make the movie the finest survival zombie apocalypse tale I have personally ever seen. It’s a movie that, even if you find cheesy, has heart, and that heart will leave you either with a smile or with tears, with more hope in humanity than you had before watching.
Originally published at www.theodysseyonline.com on March 12, 2019.