As a specialist – or so I like to think – in horror cinema, I have seen many zombie films ranging from the good, bad to the mildly indifferent. And just when I thought there the zombie genre was near exhaustion along comes Train to Busan with its hordes of ferocious zombies terrorising the passengers on a high-speed train whose destination is, of course, Busan. Known for his anime films and their insightful critical commentaries on socio-economics conditions in contemporary South Korea – The King of Pigs/Dwaejiui Wang (2011) and The Fake/Saibi (2013) which took on the consequences of bullying within the stratified structures of South Korea’s High School system and its impact on adulthood and religious fanaticism respectively, it is no surprise that Director YEON imbues his first live-action film with social critique utilizing the figure of the zombie as a metaphor for class disparities in late-capitalist South Korea where the gap between the uber-rich and the poor has never been more divisive.
The zombie is not an indigenous monster and the recent spate of zombie films from East Asia could be seen as an example of the globalization of horror cinema mirroring the contemporary Western obsession with zombies especially on the small screen e.g. The Walking Dead (AMC: 2010-) and iZombie (CW: 2015 – ) . With films such as Zombie 108/Z-108 qi cheng (Joe CHEIN, Taiwan: 2012), Yakuza Apocalypse/Gokudo Daisenso (MIIKE Takeshi, Japan: 2015) and I am a Hero/Ai Amu a Hiro (SATO Shinzuke, Japan: 2016), the archetypical long-haired ghost with her creaking joints, strange vocal range and fractured body seems to have been displaced by the zombie, the living dead of Marxist thought, spectres born from neo-liberalist geopolitics – linked to the rise of corporate capitalism and the corresponding alienation brought about by the illusory freedom of consumption necessitated by the economics of the free market.
The slow-moving, crippled, zombies of early zombie films are no longer figures of fear, instead we have fast-moving, communities of the living dead – 28 Days Later (Danny BOYLE, UK: 2002) and World War Z (Marc FORSTER, US: 2013) who are gradually becoming conscious, as envisaged by George ROMERO in his fourth instalment of the Night of the Living Dead series, Land of the Dead (US: 2005). In Train to Busan, the zombies are by-products of a leak at nuclear plant and while fast-moving, they lack the type of consciousness to repeat basic human actions which means that ultimately humans will triumph as consciousness will always prevail over pure instinct. Despite the hordes of zombies who infect those they come across with impunity, Train to Busan’s success lies not so much with the set-pieces – as extraordinary as they are, but with the resilience of human spirit brought into focus by the presence of death. As in BONG Joon-ho’s The Host/Gwoemul (2006), the re-establishing of familial bonds – specifically those between a father and his daughter – is central not just to the narrative trajectory but to the film’s global success.
The father here is Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and the daughter, Soo-an (KIM Soo-ahn). Seok-woo is a busy fund manager who is separated from his wife and although she lives with him, he spends little father to daughter time with Soo-an. However, he begrudgingly concedes to Soo-an’s birthday wish to visit her mother in Busan. Once on the train, Seok-woo must fight to the death to keep his daughter safe. And it is through the reconnection of father and daughter and Seok-woo’s realisation that the world of corporate capitalism to which he belongs is responsible for corrupting the fragile human relations between people, pitting rich against poor, young against old, able-bodied against disabled as embodied by the zombie threat that the film’s success lies. The desire to preserve one’s life at the expense of others is and ignore the suffering of others are essential components of late capitalism which operates through the alienation of man from his labour, and construction of a sphere of pure consumption which offers respite from the psychological warfare of capitalism. The Train to Busan offers the viewer a glimpse into contemporary socio-economic conditions in South Korea – which mimics those in the West – and argues for the importance of connections between people as the only possible response to these spaces of dissolution and destruction, private, public and environmental.
Train to Busan merges our expectations of the contemporary zombie film with action-packed scenes of zombie hordes mercilessly creating havoc and destruction both on and off the train with the family-centred [melo]drama which connects us to the film emotionally as well as viscerally. It is a film that needs – or perhaps more appropriately – demands to be seen on the big screen. It is nothing but spectacular. But it is the human heart of the film brought into relief by the hordes of zombies that makes us stay.
As a preview to the London Korean Film Festival 2016, Train to Busan is showing on 6th October at 7pm at Picturehouse Central. For tickets visit: https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Picturehouse_Central/Whats_On
The animated prequel, Seoul Station/Seoulyeok, is showing at LKFF2016. Details available: http://koreanfilm.co.uk/