TRAIN TO BUSAN CAUTIONS US AGAINST WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN WE DON’T CARE ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE , BOTH PERSONALLY AND POLITICALLY. IT’S A REMINDER TO ACTIVELY PRACTICE EMPATHY, ESPECIALLY WHEN LIVES ARE AT STAKE.
This essay contains spoilers for Train to Busan
“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient. In fact, a man convinced of his virtue even in the midst of his vice is the worst kind of man.”—CHARLES M. BLOW
Train to Busan is my favorite horror film and I have watched it many times. This week, I watched it for the first time since the pandemic began. All of the reasons why I included it and its prequel on my “Watchlist For The End Of The (Capitalist) World” came flooding back, just as I expected. As I describe it in my watchlist, this Korean zombie epic is “a commentary on propaganda and fearmongering. It’s about the control of information and government lies, but it is also about selfishness, especially the political kind. The kind of selfishness and need for self-preservation that comes at the expense of the lives of others. The kind that keeps millions of people under the oppressive boot of an authoritarian ruling system, because the ‘important’ people at the top must survive and they will orchestrate or permit the deaths of countless others in order to ensure that survival.”
Perhaps it was foolish of me to expect to sit through the film during this moment in history, with all of my big emotions, and not find something more in it than I have before. Watching it this time around, all I could think about was the absurdity of our current reality: the fact that there are people who refuse to do something as simple as wearing a fucking mask in the middle of a goddamn pandemic, all the while insisting that it is not their responsibility to care about whether or not other people live or die and that this position makes them “free” people. More than ever, Train to Busan makes me think about empathy, those who practice it, and those who lack it.
The film follows a group of people on a train just as a zombie contagion takes hold across several cities. Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) is taking his young daughter, Soo-An (Kim Soo-ahn), to Busan to see her mother for her birthday. The two have divorced and Seok Woo has been neglectful of Soo-An in his pursuit of professional success as a Fund Manager. Even at her young age, Soo-An is already well aware of the fact that her father often fails to practice basic empathy. “You only care about yourself,” she tells him, through tears. “That’s why mommy left.”
His character is placed between two others who reflect the kind of man Soo-An wishes her father was and the kind of man he will end up as if he continues down his path of brazen selfishness. They are Sang Hwa (Dong-seok Ma), a compassionate, brave, and nurturing man who always considers the safety of others, and Yong-Suk (Eui-sung Kim), a crude and cruel businessman who cares about no one but himself. The decisions that both of these men make greatly impact the story and directly determine who is able to live and who needlessly dies.
While the undead are ravaging everything in their path and pose the most significant threat to survival, Yong-Suk is the next largest source of villainy. He repeatedly makes choices that put other people in harm’s way, even costing some their lives. Even when it is not necessary for him to hurt others in order to ensure his own survival, even when it would be just as easy to make a different choice that would help everyone involved remain safe, even when it would actually serve him to help someone else. He always, always chooses to be the asshole.
Both Sang Hwa and Yong-Suk serve as a mirror for Seok Woo to look into and reflect on his own actions and beliefs. At one point, Sang Hwa says to Seok Woo about his position as a Fund Manager that he is “clearly an expert at leaving useless people behind.” The survivors eventually become pitted against one another and Seok Woo comes face to face with Yong-Suk, the instigator of the conflict, and it is a defining moment when he decides exactly what kind of man he wants to be. One of the lessons Seok Woo learns by watching his counterparts over the course of his journey is that empathy is a muscle. The more he exercises it, the easier it becomes to practice it.
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I have always thought of political selfishness when watching Train to Busan—like fascist tyranny and stochastic terrorism—but personal selfishness, rugged individualism, and exceptionalism are just as much on display in this zombie narrative. What is apparent during this pandemic is that the government will use moments of crisis to further entrench its authority and further its oppressive interests, and we are all sacrificial lambs. The purposeful ineptitude of the current administration is the single biggest barrier to our survival, not personal responsibility. But while masks may not be the central concern in this pandemic, they are still incredibly important and the simple fact is that more people would survive if we all utilized masks. They are one of the tools we have at our disposal to help fight the virus and prevent its spread.
By refusing to wear them, anti-maskers (like anti-vaxxers) have turned the mask into a symbol of “personal freedom,” and a lot of people are now coming to the ugly realization that—in the minds of many—”personal freedom” effectively amounts to their right to directly or indirectly harm others. This is something that many marginalized folks have always understood to be a facet of a society that frames freedom as rooted in selfishness and exceptionalism rather than selflessness and community. Train to Busan uses Seok Woo and Yong-Suk to caution us against what can happen when we don’t care about what happens to other people, on both the personal and political level. The true hero, Sang Hwa, is a reminder to actively practice empathy, especially when lives are at stake.
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