Korea's smash summer hit is a zombie movie that strikes a deep chord

A group of passengers have taken refuge in the last safe place, the front car of a train that is barreling through the hinterlands of South Korea, as a mob of zombies seethes just beyond the door.

As the last few passengers who haven’t succumbed to the zombie horde beg to be let in, those inside must quickly decide: Should they open the door and risk their own safety, or stand by and watch as others get mauled to death?

Such choices between group and individual well-being are at the core of “Train to Busan,” a high-octane thriller that has been the smash hit of the summer in South Korea. 

It’s not just the eye-popping visuals and high-paced monster story that have made “Train” a hit: The movie is also touching a nerve by reflecting the present-day reality of South Korea, an increasingly stratified and competitive society where many citizens feel elites can’t be trusted to lead in times of crisis, and those caught up in the chaos have to fend for themselves. 

Cine21, one of South Korea’s most-read film magazines, wrote in a review that “Train” is “motivated by sadness and anger over a situation where the weak cannot be protected.”

The movie, directed by Yeon Sang-ho, tells the story of Seok-woo (played by Gong Yoo), a successful fund manager and less-than-attentive father of Su-an (Kim Su-an), an elementary-school-aged girl. Early in “Train” Seok-woo makes a hamfisted attempt at celebrating his daughter’s birthday, then agrees to make good on a promise to take her south to Busan to see her mother, from whom Seok-woo is divorced.

Such a journey between South Korea’s two largest cities is normally a breeze, more than 200 miles whipping by in less than three hours on the KTX, the country’s sleek high-speed rail system. Shortly after Seok-woo and Su-an get settled in their amply-cushioned seats, a writhing, infected young woman, with pulsing red veins across her face and beady grey eyes, hops aboard just before the train can pull out of the station.

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There starts a breakneck struggle. The government declares martial law, and the characters aboard have to figure out a way to reach Busan, a southern port city, which the military has sealed off from zombies.

What follows is not a conventional hero story. In the early going, Seok-woo, a dapper businessman with leading-man looks, is depicted as indecisive and selfish, timid in handling a crisis. Instead of him, it’s a kind of South Korean Everyman who takes charge, a somewhat boorish, heavyset character who realizes that only by cooperating will the group survive. He buys the group time by coming up with clever plans to hold off the zombies. 

The real villain in “Train” is a senior employee of the train company. Apparently in a thinly-veiled dig at South Korean officialdom, at every turn the man chooses to save his own skin over helping anyone else. He goes as far as to actively sabotage passengers’ efforts to save their friends or family, in order to reduce the risk of zombies breaching the doors of the carriage he is cowering in.

The movie’s theatrical run comes during a bad time for South Korean officials. At a time of rising inequality and unemployment, in July a high-ranking official in the country’s Education Ministry caused a furor when, while having drinks with a group of newspaper reporters, he described 99% of South Koreans as being like “dogs and pigs.” The comments sparked an outpouring of vitriol from citizens and led to a wide discussion about the allegedly condescending ways South Korean officials view the public they’re meant to serve.

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Darcy Paquet, a Seoul-based film critic, says “Train’s” zombie outbreak “unleashes all the social tensions that were already there to begin with. In particular, the way that the hyper-competitiveness of Korean society causes everyone to put themselves first, and turn against others in a crisis.”

“Train,” which is now playing in Los Angeles, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in France and opened July 20 in South Korea with a record-breaking opening day. Within less than two weeks, it had brought in more than $66 million domestically, making it the second-highest-grossing movie of the year at home, according to Korean Film Council data.

Shin Do-yeon, a middle-aged woman who attended a recent afternoon showing, needed a moment to catch her breath once the theater lights came up. “It was good, but really intense,” she said. “All the blood and violence make it hard to watch.” 

“I think a story about a zombie epidemic is alluring right now because the Korean government has been slow to respond to crises and has let citizens suffer,” said Danny Kim, a master’s student in Duke University’s experimental and documentary arts program, who had also seen “Train.”

Another part of the social context of the movie’s popularity is the fresh memory of last summer’s outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, a poorly understood, contagious ailment for which there is no known treatment or vaccine. Last summer, as the virus spread and the number of deaths rose, the South Korean government was criticized domestically for failing to properly quarantine people who had been exposed, and for not sharing information about the outbreak with the public.

South Korean directors have long used fantastical elements to craft stories that have social commentary at their heart, a trend that has picked up steam in recent years, says Marc Raymond, a Korean film scholar and professor of media and journalism at Kwangwoon University in Seoul.

A prominent example is Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 monster flick “The Host,” a critical success that managed to skewer both the South Korean government and the U.S. military presence in Korea — and was the highest-grossing Korean movie ever at the time. It centers on a young girl who is abducted by a monster created after a U.S. military official dumps chemicals into a river in Seoul. As her family desperately tries to rescue her, the government bungles efforts to contain the disaster.

"Train to Busan,” Raymond said, is just “the latest example of how, now that Korean directors are competing more directly with Hollywood, they’re incorporating more foreign influences to critique their government.”

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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