Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Further thoughts on…
Train to Busan & Seoul Station
(Sang-ho Yeon, 2016)

 For a film that initially seems such an exercise in conceptual simplicity, there certainly seems to be a lot to say about Sang-ho Yeon’s South Korean zombie hit ‘Train to Busan’.

My initial review of the film, which I posted here last month, was bashed out in note form almost immediately after my first viewing, and I have subsequently grown to feel that the criticisms I expressed therein were quite unfair, and that I failed to really get to grips with what the film is trying to say – hence the necessity of a revisit.

A repeat viewing (paying closer attention, in different company) left me considerably more impressed by the scope of the film’s socio-political message, and by its (perhaps deliberate?) rejection of the cynical individualism that has come to define post-Romero zombie films.

Additionally, correspondence with the estimable Grant Balfour drew my attention to his thoughts on the film, posted a while back on his equally estimable zombie-theory blog Brian Tasting. As part of a wider exploratory work of (if you will) ‘zombie theory’, this piece is naturally framed in rather different terms to the kind of excitable blather we specialise in here, but it is thought-provoking reading nonetheless, and helped spark a few synapses with regard to the interpretation of the film which follows.

And finally, on the recommendation of reader Ian Smith (who commented on my first review), I have also recently purchased and watched ‘Train To Busan’s prequel / companion piece, the animated feature ‘Seoul Station’, and I am very glad I did so.

Not only is ‘Seoul Station’ excellent (one of the most impressive exemplars of “realistic” animation I’ve seen to date, it is very nearly the match of its live action counterpart in terms of action, scripting, human drama etc), but I was also startled by how pointedly different it is to ‘Train To Busan’ – so much so in fact that it almost feels as if it could have been produced to specifically address the kind of concerns I raised in my initial review of the latter.

I realise that this is a slightly disingenuous way of looking at things, given that the two projects were clearly produced in parallel (IMDB suggests that ‘..Station’ actually premiered two months before ‘Train..’), but the extent to which they function as “two sides of the same coin”, each seeming to address potential issues that an audience may have with the other, is remarkable.

In an attempt to convey my thoughts on all this is a coherent fashion, I’m going to split what follows into two parts – firstly, a new take on ‘Train To Busan’, specifically aiming to look at it in the context of the post-Romero zombie tradition, and secondly, a consideration of ‘Seoul Station’, and the way in which it’s drastically different approach moderates the ideas put forward in ‘Train..’.


As you may recall, one of my initial arguments re: ‘Train to Busan’ was that the film essentially removes the zombie sub-genre from the horror genre that gave birth to it, replacing the always somewhat existential terrors of a horror film with a more uplifting, “survival against the odds” narrative reminiscent of a disaster movies in the ‘70s ‘Poseidon Adventure’ / ‘Towering Inferno’ tradition. (1)

Although as a horror fan I initially had mixed feelings about this change of emphasis, I now tend to believe that it actually represents a refreshing step forward for the sub-genre in some ways, allowing ‘..Busan’ to mount a more significant challenge to our expectations of zombie cinema than its no frills plot may initially suggest.

Tracing this way back, I suppose you could say that the horror film has always basically been predicated upon ideas of sadism and voyeurism, and upon the violent disruption of quote-unquote “normal” human relationships - transgressive monsters-from-the-id running rampant, Freudian nightmares and all of that sort of thing.

Being horror films first and foremost, zombie films have naturally tended to reflect this, and their destructive/transgressive themes have become particularly amplified with regard to family relationships, partly at least I think because prime instigator George Romero had a real bee in his bonnet about family stuff. (Look at Romero’s non-zombie films for instance, and you’ll note that there are very few which do not use people having a bad time with their relatives as a central plot point.)

As a result, the ‘heroes’ of Romero's zombie films are pretty much always loners or loose groups of free-ranging individuals, whilst family responsibilities are conversely seen as a burden - as something which will drag people down and destroy them - and most subsequent zombie films have been happy to follow this lead. (2)

‘Train to Busan’ will probably be criticised by horror fans (including myself) as a kind a “zombie-lite” confection - with mainstream popular appeal and little in the way of gory or upsetting content – but I am now more inclined to argue that this perceived lack of “guts” (whether figurative or literal) should not be confused with an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to side-step the thematic complexity and serious dramatic intent necessary to sincerely convey this harrowing tale of unimaginable awfulness.

As Grant concisely states in his Tractatus (linked above):
“The site of difference for Train to Busan is located in the thematic zone of family.”

Indeed, ‘..Busan’ is perhaps the only canonical post-Romero zombie film I am familiar with in which familial relationships are seen as a source of strength and inspiration for the able-bodied, adult characters, rather than one of constriction, vulnerability and, ultimately, doom.

Upon repeat viewing, it becomes clear that the film’s occasionally soap opera-ish ‘family stuff’ is not mere the kind of space-filling, set up stuff we expect from a horror movie. Rather than simply existing in order to ensure our emotions are appropriately manipulated alongside our jangled nerves once the monsters are on the rampage, it is instead the very heart of the thing, just as much as it is in, say, ‘Don’t Look Now’ [to remain in-horror, but non-zombie].

Once this is established furthermore, ‘..Busan’ proceeds to follow an admittedly familiar disaster movie / survival horror pattern in demonstrating the way in which flesh-and-blood family relationships can become easily mutable, their accompanying responsibilities transferable, during times of crisis.

Whereas many filmmakers may be have been apt to present Seok-woo (Yoo Gong)’s determination to protect his daughter at all costs during the early part of the film in an uncritical, positive light, director Sang-ho Yeon instead goes to great lengths to ensure that his protagonist’s decision to prioritise the safety of his own father/daughter unit at the expense of helping others is repeatedly shown up as both selfish, and, more to the point, ineffectual. (Slight cognitive dissonance may result here for viewers used to accepting Hollywood’s traditional doctrine of unearned exceptionalism.)

Through his interactions with the film’s other survivors (most particularly, with the parallel two-person family unit represented by Dong-seok Ma and his pregnant wife Yu-mi Jung) Seok-woo gradually learns how easily protective family can be transferred and reshaped for the benefit of all, whenever survival is threatened.

Given that Seok-woo’s most pointed critic on this matter is his own daughter, and that subsequent events lead him to what (avoiding spoilers) can only be described as a full-scale Damascene conversion, the film could scarcely have made its point re: the benefits of collective rather than unilateral action any more clearly.

Through this collective redistribution of responsibility, it is shown that those traditionally seen as a survival-threatening ‘burden’ in zombie cinema (children, the elderly, pregnant women) can be whisked forward toward safety with comparative ease, bypassing the inevitable path toward grim, basement apocalypse that ‘Night of the Living Dead’ has forever etched in our mind as the natural fate of the rigidly inflexible family unit. (3)

By completely overturning this Romero / horror film paradigm, by portraying love and family responsibility - and beyond them, simply fellow humanity - as something that actually drives people to greater feats of survival and self-sacrifice, ‘Train to Busan’ can actually thus be seen as a very brave and innovative addition to what is traditionally an extremely cynical and misanthropic sub-genre.

If ‘Night of the Living Dead’ provided a kind of ultimate “fuck you” to the nuclear family values and perceived social conformity of the 1950s, fifty years of subsequent zombie movies have hammered that point home so thoroughly that Romero’s proto-survivalist notions of pragmatic individualism, so shocking in their day, have now more or less become the norm across a whole swathe of popular genres. (4)

By pulling a complete 180 on this, at a time when the mainstream of culture and politics is arguably becoming more systematically cynical and hyper-individualistic than ever before, could ‘Train to Busan’ in some sense feel just as radical in 2018 as NOTLD did in 1968..?

Well, maybe I'm taking all this a bit too far, but, whichever way you look at it, my second viewing of ‘Train..’ makes clear that the film’s central message is a practical rather than sentimental one, and it is hammered home so relentlessly, so clearly, by the on-screen action that I feel like absolute blockhead for failing to accord it due prominence in my first review.

Refuting not just Romero but the all-too-common misinterpretation of that old chestnut about the plank from Matthew’s gospel, ‘Train to Busan’s message is: help others before you help yourself, otherwise all will perish.

It is not exactly a subtle message, or a new one, or one that is terribly difficult to grasp, but if we expand it beyond its immediate context and apply it to the perilous global situation we currently find ourselves in, it certainly makes a mockery of my earlier assertion that ‘Train to Busan’ lacks political clout.


Moving on to ‘Seoul Station’, the differences between ‘Train to Busan’ and its animated “prequel” are so self-evident they barely need to be stated. Developed in parallel by the same writer-director and producers, the two projects are clearly designed to function as thematic opposites in just about every respect, from the train / station dichotomy evident in the films’ titles right through to their underlying moral philosophy, and the vision they present of life in present day South Korea.

Whereas ‘Train..’s titular journey takes place in daylight, commencing in the early morning, the events of ‘..Station’ occur at night, allegedly beginning during the previous evening. (5)

Whereas the vast majority of the characters aboard the ‘Train..’ belong to the mainstream of society – predominantly middle-class, with recognisably ‘normal’ interpersonal relationships and at least enough money to travel between cities on a high speed train – those left back at the ‘..Station’ are, without exception, rejects from that society - the homeless, the destitute, runaways, criminals and lowly service sector employees, all essentially friendless and alone in the world. (6)

Whereas the filmmakers’ depiction of the reaction of the authorities to the zombie threat remains ambiguous (or rather, irrelevant) in ‘Train..’, the attempts of state security forces to respond to the outbreak in ‘..Station’ are shown to be as incompetent, inhumane and catastrophic as anything in Romero’s filmography.

Whereas family relationships sit at the heart of the drama in ‘Train..’, imbuing its characters with strength and heroism, the few interpersonal relationships depicted in ‘..Station’ are sketchy, abusive or transient arrangements which tend to conclude in the most horribly upsetting manner imaginable.

In fact, whereas ‘Train..’ could be accused by horror fans of soft-pedalling on both the social criticism and transgressive violence stipulated by the Romero zombie film blueprint, ‘..Station’ presents us not only with an excess of repellent imagery but also a plotline which more or less consists entirely of social criticism, much of it expressed in bitterly angry, unflinching terms.

Whereas the dramatic high notes in ‘Train..’ are provided by scenes of noble, heroic self-sacrifice, the emotional core of ‘..Station’ is instead represented by a scene in which an elderly homeless man and a teenage runaway weep uncontrollably in an empty subway tunnel, each lamenting their inability to return to a home that no longer exists. (A circumstance which, crucially, could have played out in exactly the same manner even without the intervention of flash-eating zombies.)

Indeed, in terms of the kind of grand metaphors that inevitably accompany post-Romero zombie films, ‘Seoul Station’ most directly addresses the theme of homelessness (in both the literal and archetypical senses of the word).

We spend a great deal of time during the early part of the film in the company of the homeless population who subsist in and around the station. It is grim, cheerless stuff, and, presumably, one of the main reasons why ‘..Station’ seems to have failed to match the commercial momentum of ‘Train..’, as Yeon captures that dull ache of guilt that always accompanies first-hand encounters with homelessness all too well.

As we experience the faceless coldness with which the entreaties of the homeless are dismissed by the harried security guards and cleaners who represent the only fellow humans who are actually obliged to deal with them, and, subsequently, the way in which their increasingly urgent concerns re: the imminent zombie apocalypse are ignored and belittled, we begin to understand that, for these homeless characters, the moneyed commuters who more-or-less step over their bodies on a daily basis have become so distant and unrelatable that the transition to dealing with flesh-eating zombies is only further degree or two down the ladder from their usual day-to-day.

And, conversely, when the over-worked and underpaid station staff eventually figure out what’s going on, they can’t help but see the zombie onslaught as an (admittedly alarming) escalation of the problem represented by the homeless hordes who are usually banging on their perplex doors day and night with complaints and requests for help.

If all this sounds as if it could be adding up to a pretty preachy zombie movie, well, let’s just say that ‘Seoul Station’ benefits – fairly remarkably, given its status as an animation - from some instances of carefully nuanced characterisation that help the film to engage with the complexity of the issues it is addressing, preventing it from becoming a mere exercise in hand-wringing guilt.

Far from the down-on-his-luck saint of Hollywood hobo tradition, the (nameless?) homeless man whom we follow through the early portion of the film, as he attempts to alert the authorities to the fact that his “buddy” is in the process of contracting the zombie virus, is a painfully damaged and clueless individual. Precisely the kind of irresolvable, walking problem that anyone who has ever worked behind a counter or helped out at a chairty will instinctively dread the approach of, the personal failings that have led him to his lowly position in life are, sadly, just as clear as the societal ones.

Given that this man is one of the few characters in the film who is sufficiently good-natured to actually try to help others before himself moreover, the fact that his efforts are so completely ineffectual feels like a pointedly cynical rejoinder to the humanitarian message of ‘Train to Busan’.

Likewise, I was impressed by the brief scene in which several characters get into an altercation with the commanding officer of a police unit busy confining civilian survivors to a kind of perilous no man’s land between their riot shields and the zombie hordes. Far from the kind of doltish, authoritarian strawmen whose thoughtless actions serve to rouse our anger in Romero’s films, the guy who is reluctantly calling the shots in this particular clusterfuck is actually very relatable.

A tired, worried man doggedly obliged to pursue the strategy decided upon by his superiors against what we assume to be his own gut feeling, he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes as our protagonists berate him, momentarily defusing the situation by quietly talking to them on the level, more or less telling them that there is no chance of a good resolution here, so they might as well just beat it and forget about their friends behind the barricade.

With an admirable lack of subtlety that yet again puts me in mind of Romero, ‘Seoul Station’s conclusion sees the film’s few exhausted survivors limping their way into an actual complex of newly built, “dream home” demo apartments, there to enact a shocking, plot twist-driven conclusion that seems more like the kind of thing that might have played out in an early Takashi Miike yakuza movie than something we’d expect from the director of ‘Train to Busan’ – a conclusion furthermore in which, once again, the close proximity of flesh-eating zombies is largely incidental.

If ‘Seoul Station’ and ‘Train to Busan’ have anything in common in fact, it is the use of the zombies as an impersonal force of nature, rather than as a gothic horror-derived atavistic / existential menace. (The conclusion to ‘..Station’ may admittedly have a certain gothic kick to it, but it is one delivered solely by the human characters.)

In both films, the zombies essentially function as a mechanism for accelerating pre-existing tensions and relationships between human beings, taking them straight to their natural conclusion, stripping away the months, years or decades it may have taken for the characters to reach this point of mutual understanding or closure in zombie-free circumstances; a conclusion which the filmmakers’ manage to frame in euphoric, ultimately uplifting terms in ‘Train..’, and, well… quite the opposite in ‘..Station’.

It will be up to the viewer, I suppose, to decide which is the more impressive of the two achievements, but more impressive than either is the realisation that it is not really a choice. Taken together, ‘Seoul Station’ and ‘Train to Busan’ comprise a more cohesive cinematic Yin-Yang than I can recall ever previously seeing from two parallel / sequential films by the same director. Just as there can be no good in life without the bad, either half of this two-film equation feels slightly empty without the other; as in life itself, you’ve got to take ‘em both, or let them go.


(1) Echoing my own observation about the zombies in the film functioning like a tidal wave, my wife’s immediate reaction to watching the film for the first time was to insist that it must have been intended as a fictional response to the East Asian tsunami of 2011, giving voice to the filmmakers’ belief that people need to work together for their mutual benefit in such situations, rather than prioritising individual safety. 

The likelihood of this may be slightly undermined by the fact that the Korean peninsula was largely unaffected by the 2011 tsunami, and indeed has suffered mercifully little damage from major natural disasters during the 21st century thus far, but I definitely take her point re: the film’s likely real world inspirations and wider narrative intent.

(In a horrible irony meanwhile, my brief research on this point revealed that the city of Busan was actually hit by a typhoon in the same month ‘Train to Busan’ premiered.) 

(2) The only exception to this I can think of is the pregnant woman who makes a getaway in the helicopter at the end of ‘Dawn of the Dead’... something that is perhaps being vaguely referenced by the ending to ‘..Busan’, now that I think about it, even as it simultaneously throws a humanist raspberry towards the more famous ending of ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

(3) For an even more potent demonstration of the way in which ‘Train to Busan’ upturns the universe according to Romero, contrast the portrayal of the parallel male/female couple and father/daughter units in ‘..Busan’ with the singularly horrible fates suffered by their direct counterparts in what is arguably Romero’s most powerful (certainly most under-rated) apocalyptic film, 1973’s ‘The Crazies’.

(4) There is probably a wider point to be navel-gazed here re: the notion that the primary legacy of the beat / hippie counter-culture that crested at around the same time NOTLD saw release actually had nothing to do with greater social freedoms or the expansion of pacifist/humanist causes, but was instead centred around the widespread celebration of *individuality*, as contrasted with the perceived consensus conformity of earlier generations. The very same celebration of individual agency, which, in its nefarious alignment with the machinations of advanced capitalism, many would claim is now slowly killing us all fifty years down the line, perhaps…? (2,000 words on this on my desk in time for next week’s lesson, please class!)

(5) Whilst I don’t want to interrupt the main text with such nit-picking, I’ve nonetheless got to take some time to address the fact that the time-frame within which these two films co-exist really doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense, whichever way you look at it.

During the night in which ‘Seoul Station’ takes place, the zombie outbreak is seen to reach fairly apocalyptic severity long before the sun rises, with the area around the station entirely abandoned to the zombie hordes. As such, the idea that a full compliment of passengers gathered to board a train there the following morning without noticing anything is amiss until after they have departed is, frankly, impossible to accept. (I mean, I’m not going to let this spoil my enjoyment of two very good films or anything, but, y’know – just sayin’.)

(6) As Ian Smith points out in his comment on my original post, the traumatised homeless man who sneaks aboard the train in ‘Train to Busan’ seems to represents the only “crossover” between the worlds of the two films.

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