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.