2016 Korean blockbuster Train to Busan is a fast-paced story about an outbreak of a disease that immediately turns people into zombies. A girl bitten by a zombie catches a train to Busan and her transformation into a zombie infects others on the train in a chain reaction. Soon the train has the infected carriages and the carriages with healthy people. Owing to a series of unfortunate circumstances, the ineptness of authorities, and egotism, all the people on the train turn into zombies and only a pregnant woman and a little girl manage to escape from the horrific train and get to safety. Train to Busan was shot after a ferry disaster in 2014 and an outbreak of respiratory disease in 2015 when the government remained passive and not helpful in terms of the whole country. Furthermore, the zombie is a societal response to the pressures and hardships of modern life. Coming from cities zombies react to work overload, consumerism, and a loss of friendly communication between people. Therefore, zombies in Train to Busan represent the blind fate that cannot discern between people and affects everyone around and simultaneously reflects the pressure people feel daily due to excessive consumerism and hard work whereas those in power stay idle and take care only of themselves in the face of danger.
There are several ways of how the zombie can be interpreted. First of all, the zombie comes from the city and it can indicate the hardships of urban life. People feel lonely and isolated and, as compensation, engage in work, thus becoming more robot-like than human. Electronic gadgets become an essential part of human life and serve as a primary means of receiving news and information. When people stare at their screens, they look like zombies with vacant eyes and rigid poses. Next, people compensate the emptiness they feel with excessive consuming, which makes them like zombies because they forsake natural human pleasures such as being outdoors and communicating with close ones. Finally, people work more in order to make money which they can later spend on consuming goods and products. Incessant work also turns humans into zombies who do not care about their relatives. Referring to the people in the city, the bum in the film says, “Everybody is dead,” which can be applied both to the zombies and the zombie-like people who work too much, buy too much, and spend too much time online.
Another feature of the zombie in the film is that they cannot see and they react to sounds and movements rather than visual stimulation. In this case, the zombie can represent fate which is blind and does not see its victims. They walk around with their pale-blue unseeing eyes and freeze in darkness when people cover the window glass or spray smoke around. If the zombie signifies something negative, their blindness suggests the unspecific character of the negativity. When the tragedy happens, there is no criterion revealing who will fall victim. Remembering the national tragedy of 2014 when a ferry carrying three hundred people sank, no one could predict that it would happen to these people. Apart from the greediness of the ferry owners and egotism of the ferry crew, there were no reasons for so many people to die. The protagonist in the film, Seok-Woo, says, “They attack because they see us” and the pregnant woman sprays the window glass with water and sticks newspapers to the glass hiding other people from the clawing zombies behind the glass partition. It can be construed that people begin to understand that they should keep a low profile and do anything to stay unnoticed. Otherwise, the fate will see them and do some misfortune.
In the case of large catastrophes, people want to rely on the government who has power and resources and is able to arrange some help. However, the film reveals that the authorities are not trustworthy. On the surface, the government attempts to keep people calm and unpanicked. Showing the footage of the zombie attack on the city, the TV presenter calmly advises, “We must stay calm and trust government” and then renders the government’s announcement, “We believe that your safety is not in jeopardy.” People cannot believe it because they see zombies running wild behind the window and people getting rabid immediately after being bitten. As a result, people cannot trust the authorities and they understand that there is no one to help them. They need to organize their survival on their own and it intensifies their mean and uncivil qualities.
The way the passengers react to the zombie threat reveals that they have lost or have never had their compassion and empathy. Everyone is self-caring and only a little girl feels that people should help one another. Some women also have compassionate attitudes whereas some men reveal their egotistic sides. Individual egotism is often determined by one’s position. Those who are used to power are more arrogant and self-caring than more common people. The protagonist Seok-Woo advises his daughter to stop being polite and “at a time like this only watch out for yourself.” Furthermore, a rich businessman Yon-suk is shown constantly pushing the conductor and the engine driver to save themselves and not to wait for others. Basically, because of egoism and the lack of unity so many people die in the film. Yon-suk insists on blocking the carriage and not letting in a group of escaped passengers, fearing that they may be bitten and may infect all of them. However, his selfish behavior results in the death of the pregnant woman’s husband who had helped everyone and fought zombies.
The fact that the action takes place in South Korea adds to the plot and reveals what fears and anxieties are currently rampant in the country. Having experienced several tragedies in a row, citizens cannot trust the government and people in power. Even when they expect some help, they do not receive it. At the beginning of the film, a train attendant sees a zombie-bitten girl writhing on the floor and transforming into a zombie. She cries helplessly into the walkie-talkie: “Director [of the train], where are you? I don’t believe it.” However, she gets no assistance and is unable to deal with the zombie. Similarly, inept are other official institutions. The control center responds to the passengers’ request by stating that “this is the order from the control center” and they cannot provide them any help. Meanwhile, the TV presenter cheerfully chirps, “Thanks to our government’s rapid response, various outbreaks are being contained.”
As a result, Train to Busan is not a film about heroism and mutual help. Rather, zombies reveal that people forgot how to unite and assist one another. The zombie can be understood as either the mutilating pressure that transforms people into deadly creatures or a blind stroke of fortune that hits humans without discerning among them. An experience of tragic incidents in South Korea makes it a suitable place for an outbreak of the zombie disease because the country has already witnessed the selfishness and ineptness of the government when it disoriented population and did not help its people.
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