Arguably, one of the most important subtexts in Train to Busan is its critiques of Korea’s mounting class issues. Setting the main stage on a train, the film brings together a socially diverse group with essentially no barriers in between. While zombie attacks act as the main propeller of plot development, the conflicts between surviving human beings is where the true drama lies.
The elite class, represented by the early-stage father character Seokwook and the villain COO Yonsuk, become the face of self-interest, having no scruples to leaving others behind for their own safety. The film suggests the exploitative nature of this group and passes on judgement through details such as Seokwook’s troubled family life, Sangwa’s ridicule of Seokwook before his daughter, Seokwook’s company as the likely cause of the crisis and Yonsuk’s offensive treatment of the elder and teenage girl.
The working class, best represented by the married couple, the homeless man and the baseball teens, on the other hand, is glorified as the image of courage and caring. All of them showed willingness to help people with whom they had little prior interactions in life-threatening situations. Through a series of respectful deaths of the working class, the film reveals this kind group of people, sadly, are not always in control of their lives, susceptible to and bearing the bulk of consequences of the elite class’s irresponsible deeds. This parallel between elites harming the working class and the zombies attacking humans is quite provoking, almost insinuating that they are the same.
Another interesting group involves the elderly sisters, whose stories call attention to the neglected status of old people in Korea. Throughout the plot, hardly anyone noticed or cared about the two sisters apart from the innocent daughter character, Suan. Ironically, it is exactly this neglect that led to the demise of all passengers in the “safest” carriage. When the unadorned sister died, the surviving one realized she had no one at her back anymore and thus no longer wanted to live. Her theatrical choice to end her life by letting zombies in to wipe off passengers in carriage 15, reveals her disapproval of their repulsive banishment of the surviving protagonists and the somber world she lived in in general.
In addition, this film reiterates many of the themes that we have studied in our class so far, particularly questions of community versus individuality. As expected, the group of healthy people try to quarantine themselves in another car of the train from the zombies. However, a particularly striking moment is when the homeless man sacrifices himself for Su-an to escape with Seok-wo; usually it is accepted that in such situations women and children are meant to be the priority, but I do not think that it has been a question we discussed in class. In a way, the homeless man sacrificing himself raises questions of whether certain lives are worth more than others, and what determines the worth of life? It is also interesting to consider which characters draw our sympathy towards them, and which characters we do not sympathize with. For instance, the homeless character definitely draws some sympathy but at the end, Seok-wo’s death draws more sympathy than the homeless man’s death just by virtue of him being a father. Although Seok-wo was initially a distant father, but at the end, by virtue of his positionality in the situation, the audience inevitably sympathizes with him.
It’s interesting how you talk about the idea of social class in the film and how people come together in a time of crisis. Also, I hadn’t thought about the reason why the surviving sister would end her life along with the people in the cart. I thought it would be because of the devastation of losing a loved one, but adding the layer of it being a form of revenge because of the neglect of the elderly is also very interesting. Also, the question you bring up about the preciousness of human life makes me curious that if one life was more precious than another, what the “rules” or implications would be in the situation of the homeless man’s sacrifice. Would the little girl be more precious because she is so young and has “more to live for”, or is the pregnant woman more precious because she is carrying another soul? What do you think about this situation?
I find the class analysis at play here very interesting — the film does cover all the different social strata and puts them together in the train, and you point to the notion of the elite as a sort of zombie upon the working class (I don’t remember the exact words the married couple use when talking about Seok-Woo, but I do remember it being somewhere along the lines of “leech” or “blood-sucker,” a reference to vampires, who feed on human blood, and to the zombies, who have a tendency to bite into human flesh to kill).
I also find the discourse on community versus individuality quite provoking, if anything because they evoke notions of communal framing and of blaming. We know, because we are told so in the film through the distressed analyst Kim, that the company where Seok-Woo works is responsible for the disease. And yet, the sequence where they both find out is painfully short: as Seok-Woo has that realization (shown to us as he looks into his hands, the symbolic carrier of actions), the train has to come to a sudden stop and jolts him out of his trance, bringing us back to risk. What do we make of the short time dedicated for guilt and blaming?
Another possible question for community seems to be represented in the snippets of government announcements the film shows, where the problem is at first framed as if it were a series of widespread riots instead of a disease, despite clear evidence to the contrary. What do we make of the government’s efforts to hide the facts? Should we take them as a way to keep communal calm?
I think the short time dedicated for guilt may be a representation of moving on and creating change. We see the character arc of the dad as starting off as a selfish father workaholic moving on to somebody who is learning from their mistakes and trying to do good. Maybe we only got a snippet of that scene to represent the importance of taking action and not dwelling on the past too much.
I think it’s interesting how the government tried to cover up their mistakes and mislead the community, it shows how selfish they are. I think the theme of selfishness applies perfectly here as on one hand we have the father trying to learn from his selfishness and move on to do good, while the government is clearly still not in favor of helping the community and warning them from the outbreak, hence trying to cover it up with “riots”. The parallel of helping others and choosing to be independent from the community is portrayed as rivals here.