Train to Busan and the Comfort of Disaster

As part of the ongoing Blog Challenge Project, Shaun Duke wrote a rewatch review of Danny Boyle’s hyper-tense zombie movie 28 Days Later. Entitled “28 Days Later and the Delicious Comfort of Disaster” it very neatly encapsulates the counter-intuitive trend for people to be drawn to zombie and disease films during a pandemic.

‘As I mentioned, re-watching this film in the middle of a pandemic has added some interesting dimensions of comfort and terror. These simultaneously (and contradictorily) operate through two components:
1. The setting is a “worst case scenario,” which is always worse than wherever we happen to be in the now.
2. The story is deeply “human.”’

I’m a big fan of 28 Days Later, partly because it knowingly plays on one of my favourite novels The Day of the Triffids but also because it is so tense and scary. Focused on a quartet of survivors in an abandoned Britain, the zombies are “rage’ infected living people. The implication is that the actual pandemic will end once the infected all starve to death but somehow that only makes the film both more bleak and horrific.

Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 contribution to the zombie movie genre similarly focuses on a core quartet of people attempting to survive during a zombie outbreak. However, unlike 28 Day’s Later paired back depiction the film fully indulges in zombies as an inhuman mass of violent bodies. The violence is more frequent and the confrontation between the protagonists and the undead is almost constant once it gets underway.

Where 28 Days Later explicitly ties the infection to human violence and social instability, Train to Busan presents the immediate spread of a zombie outbreak as a social metaphor. Overworked fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is taking his daughter from Seoul to see her mother in Busan (from whom he is divorced due to the relationship collapsing because of his work commitments). On board the same train is Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi) and her pugilistic working-class husband Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok). Unbeknownst to all of them, Seoul is the epicentre of a horrific zombie outbreak (the cause of which is never explained).

The course of the outbreak is initially watched as news reports on the train TVs and via people’s phones. Initially presented as civil unrest, the scale and nature of the infection rapidly becomes clear but only as the train itself becomes infected. What follows is both a tense action film and a social examination. At one end is Sang-hwa, a down to earth man who is mainly trying to keep his pregnant wife safe but throughout helps others. In contrast, Yon-suk is the COO of the train company and coincidentally a passenger: throughout his cynical and selfish actions compound the danger of the zombies even as he claims to act for the greater good. Between them, morally is Seok-woo who initially attempts to convince his daughter that survival at the expense of others is the only thing that matters (this after she gives up her seat for an elderly passenger).

‘Message fiction’ is an oft derided term but Train to Busan makes no apologies for it’s core theme: in a crisis we should help one another not just for moral reasons but because it is the essence of survival. The film doesn’t play favourites though, the shitty COO survives for longer than many of the ‘nice’ characters. Other’s let grief overwhelm them and others die holding back hordes of rabid zombies so that others can escape. Yet in the end it is hope and humanity that survives.

Losing and finding humanity runs through the film both as the accident of being bitten by a zombie but also by the toll of surviving the corporate ladder. Seok-woo is chided by his daughter for his selfishness and more neatly summed up by Sang-hwa who just calls names him “asshole”* Yet, it is cooperation that keeps them alive — most notably when Seok-woo, Sang-hwa and a young baseball player have to fight their way through infected carriages.

Neatly balancing big set-pieces (and horrific zombie hordes) with a very person focused survival story, this is one of my favourite zombie films. Unique and familiar it is well worth a watch.

*[Except in Korean obviously. I’m going off the subtitles]


10 responses to “Train to Busan and the Comfort of Disaster”

  1. This sent me off to YouTube in search of the 1980s Australian band The Triffids. I remember their song “Trick of the Light” from the summer of 1986, I think. Thanks for the smile!

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  2. “The implication is that the actual pandemic will end once the infected all starve to death but somehow that only makes the film both more bleak and horrific”

    I agree and it’s one of the ways the script takes advantage of one’s over-familiarity with zombie/plague stories as a kind of misdirection. It’s natural to assume that in a story like this, the whole world is just as badly off as England and this will go on for ages, because that’s how these stories go. Even though the movie establishes right away that the infected aren’t dead and don’t have any supernatural abilities and are way too discombobulated to take care of themselves, and that “rage” takes effect so ridiculously quickly(*) that it’s not going to get onto a plane undetected(**), the horror language is similar enough that you can easily think “Well, everything is fast instead of slow, I guess that’s a novelty” and not connect the dots until Eccleston spells it out. At which point his character becomes 100 times worse in hindsight because he must know his whole “enslave people and start our own fortress society” plan is not just a terrible answer, but a terrible answer to the wrong problem.

    (*) I know it’s scientifically absurd but I reapply like the 15-second thing just as a viscerally frightening idea, and it gives us that great bit where one of the characters knows he’s just been infected and is yelling “get away” in a voice that’s already halfway a rage voice. And it naturally suggests a scene that they didn’t actually do, but that’s described in the sequel, where you could see it spreading through a crowded place in real time.

    (**) Yes, I know.

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      • Eh, I wouldn’t say undermines. What happens in the first film still makes sense on its own terms, it’s just that we didn’t know they’d been lucky not to run into this particular loophole. In a way it’s using what you know from the first one as misdirection not unlike how the first one used what you know about zombie apocalypses, and it does it in a way that is specifically relevant to these characters – I mean, you know Carlyle’s guilt will come back on him somehow but the way that plays out makes it so much worse. I don’t think it’s a brilliant movie (there’s a lot of filler) but I think they did make good choices of how to build on what they’d been given.

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  3. A really odd take on zombie fiction and its social implications from the 2000s, that I highly recommend, is the generically titled “The Outbreak” by Sean T. Collins:

    “The Outbreak” is a blog (so you have to scroll way back in time to find the beginning) and it starts out pretending to just be Collins’s own blog, so he’s talking about music and personal minutiae, and the scary news events just creep up in the background until he and his loved ones are under siege in Long Island— but it’s a low-grade siege, you can still go out for groceries, you just have to be careful. Friends of his are commenting on the blog, in character, to tell him how they’re doing in other parts of the country. Of course the fact that they still have Internet access suggests that this is a less drastic apocalypse than usual and, sure enough, (spoiler I guess) it turns out that zombies can actually be defeated by a concerted military and public health effort. At which point it sinks in that society hasn’t been destroyed, it’s just badly disrupted and full of traumatized people, and the narrator says something like: “Oh shit, now we’re going to have to find jobs again.”

    Disclosure: Collins mainly works as a TV and film critic but he’s written and edited some good comics, and at one point we were putting together a comics adaptation of this which I started illustrating until the project fell apart. But I’ve never met him and the reason I wanted to work on it is that I already liked it a lot.


  4. Sorry, one more thing – speaking of Triffids – have you heard any of the BBC radio plays? I think the 1968 one is the one I’ve heard, and I remember it being a particularly effective use of the medium: the listener is sort of in the same boat as the people who can’t see, and even though the protagonist can see, the sparse sound design gives you the feeling of an emptied-out world where at any moment you might start hearing Triffid sounds.


  5. Train to Busan was Yeon Sang-ho’s first live action film. He had previously only directed animated films. He also directed the animated Seoul Station which is an unofficial prequel to Train to Busan. They were both released in the same year. It’s worth checking out but be warned, it’s much more bleak than Train.

    I’ve really enjoyed many of the South Korean films recently. This is odd due to the fact that I generally prefer my “social message” films to be a bit more subtle in their social messaging. SK films these days wield their social message like a sledge hammer. They’re angry and they’re not subtle at all about what they’re angry about. Sort of refreshing actually.

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