Movies and the Real World: A lesson from ‘Train to Busan’

Gong Yoo in Train to Busan
Gong Yoo in Train to Busan

I’ve been neglecting my blog for the past year, as my two (if even that) regular readers can tell. I’ve still been going to the movies; I just haven’t been writing about them. (I did say before: I am a procrastinator of the highest order.)

In such times of instability in the world, when outrageous, hate-filled policies that benefit the rich — while taking away even more rights from the middle class, the poor, the powerless and the minorities — are being transmitted from the highest echelons of power, it’s also difficult to see any significance in writing about movies. Or trivial lifestyle matters. Are there more important things that we can be doing with our time to resist all this hatred and corruption in the world? Should we be engaging in escapism when we shouldn’t be escaping?

Then I remember there are lessons that the movies can teach us, if we are willing to see them, and willing to learn from them.

Take for instance, Train to Busan. It broke box office records in Korea as well as other parts of Asia, and was the highest-grossing Asian film in Singapore last year, and the top Korean film in Singapore of all time — out-earning the runner-up, 200 Pounds Beauty, more than 5 times over — literally going viral as the word of mouth spread and more and more people came to watch it week after week after week.

What made this movie stand out from the rest? If you are to look at its merits as merely a “zombie movie”, it is tense and action-packed, sure, but so are plenty of Hollywood blockbusters with big stars — many of which did not earn the amount that Train to Busan did. Train to Busan’s marketing budget was at most a fifth of all these blockbusters’ too, if not lower. So I can only conclude that the movie lends itself so much empathy that people had to recommend it over and over to their friends — its emotional heart, and its unflinching look at the best and worst in humanity, as I mentioned in my review last year.

It also happens to be one of the most apt movies for our present time. Even when I was watching it back in August, before Donald Trump’s election, the parallels to Trump and the xenophobia that is running rampant in the world currently was striking, and prescient.

In the film, there is a pivotal scene where Gong Yoo’s character and the small ragtag group of survivors who had been separated from the rest of the train passengers were running through the carriages, being chased by zombies, and had nearly reached the safety of the main cabin when they found themselves locked out. The rest of the train passengers, instigated by an odious, repugnant, selfish man, had decided that the small group of survivors outside were not worth saving, for fear of the zombies invading their cabin and killing them all, and had deliberately barred the doors and gagged the girlfriend of the baseball player in the group of survivors to prevent her from alerting them.

Ma Dong-seok, Gong Yoo and Choi Woo-sik in Train to Busan
Ma Dong-seok, Gong Yoo and Choi Woo-sik in Train to Busan

It became one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movie as one of the survivors, a courageous, greathearted man whom the audience had come to love and root for, sacrificed himself to hold off the zombies as his pregnant wife looked on in terror and tears. Due to his sacrifice, Gong Yoo and the others managed to wrench open the door to the safe cabin and get most of them to safety. However, the granny that was with the survivors was too slow and got bitten by the zombies, just as her sister in the safe cabin, who had thought her dead, saw that she was outside and had been alive all along.

Gong Yoo then punched the Odious Man and screamed at him for not letting them in earlier, because they all would have been alive if it wasn’t for the selfishness of those passengers purposefully holding the door shut and obstructing their way. The Odious Man then turned around and accused Gong Yoo of being crazy for punching him, and the newly arrived survivors of being infected since they were exposed to the zombies for so long and were behaving in such an “erratic” manner. The other train car passengers picked up the fear-mongering call and yelled at the survivors to get out of their train carriage, which Gong Yoo and gang do, after glaring at them in unspeakable anger at their selfishness and cruelty.

The selfish villain in Train to Busan
The Odious Man in Train to Busan. One of my most hated cinematic characters ever. >:-O

The passengers then sealed the door separating them tightly to ensure that the survivors could not get in. Meanwhile, the old lady who had just lost her sister to the zombies was sitting at a corner near the door keeping out said zombies, reeling with grief. Looking in disgust at the passengers securing the other door with extreme measures, she quietly cursed them for their selfishness, and then got up to let the zombies in. The Odious Man saw her but was too late to stop her, and the zombies overwhelmed the carriage and massacred everyone, who were unable to escape because they had sealed the exit, the one shutting out the “infected” survivors, so tightly.

Do you see the parallels?

Trump (and all other xenophobes) is the Odious Man, and the train car passengers — who originally were intending to help the survivors, but had been swayed to Odious Man’s selfish thinking — are the people who have taken up his call of banning Muslims and “illegal” immigrants. (Frankly, I think they’re just against immigrants in general — especially those who don’t look white or Christian — while pretending they aren’t.) They think it will solve their problems of not letting in the zombie horde (extremist terrorists and non-Americans, legal or not, stealing their jobs, some of which Americans don’t even want to work anyway), and are willing to abandon the small group of survivors clamouring to be let in (refugees from war-torn countries and normal legal immigrants who just happen to be Muslim *who have already been vetted in one of the most stringent vetting procedures in the world*).

In the end, when some of these people leaving/fleeing their dangerous homelands are eventually killed when forced to return to those homelands, even perfectly normal people who previously *weren’t* radicalised, but whose families may have been affected or killed by the actions of these selfish few/many, or who see the hypocrisy and selfishness of the few/many and simply can’t stand it anymore, *will* become radicalised (the old lady who saw her sister being bitten by a zombie before they could reunite, and was so disgusted by the train passengers that she let the zombies in). People have murdered for lesser reasons.

When audiences watched the movie, I don’t think a single person blamed the old lady for letting the zombies in. We may have been horrified at the massacre, but I’m pretty sure that many of us felt that the selfish train car passengers deserved what they got. So if radicalised American terrorists deliberately targeted groups of racist nationalists like the Ku Klux Klan, or people in the “alt-right” movement who are generally a nasty bunch, I’m pretty sure that most of the world would think that they deserved it, even though we may condemn the terrorists in principle.

Unfortunately, in acts of terror, innocents are usually the ones killed. One of the most upsetting things about the movie is that it didn’t stop there, with all the selfish people killed and the survivors saved. The Odious Man had miraculously survived the train massacre, and continued to cause the deaths of the rest of the survivors in his selfish need to keep himself alive at the expense of all others. The baseball player and his girlfriend didn’t even know what hit them before they got bitten and turned into zombies. It just makes me so angry to remember that, and it was what made Train to Busan such a painful film to watch — because everyone died except for Gong Yoo’s daughter and the courageous man’s pregnant wife. And all the survivors who died did so while helping others to escape.

I wish that the Odious Man had died in the beginning, or even in the middle, during the attack at the train station, because if he had, the rest of the train passengers would not have been swayed by his selfish thinking to keep out the separated survivors, and almost everyone could have survived instead of just two people. (The Odious Man, despite all his efforts, was still turned into a zombie in the end.) True, the result wouldn’t be such a great movie, but it’s what I want the world to be — people who were swayed to the side of good and helped each other to survive, instead of caring only for themselves and causing the deaths of others in their selfishness.

Gong Yoo and Kim Soo-an in Train to Busan
Gong Yoo and his daughter in Train to Busan

You may argue that it is only a movie. But the human nature it portrays is real, and that was what made the movie so successful. There are people as selfish as that Odious Man, and human beings *are* as easily swayed into being selfish as those train passengers when they think they are in danger. We are seeing it now in the people who support the Muslim ban — which ironically do not include the actual countries where people who have killed Americans in terrorist attacks are from. (The Trump Organisation does business with those countries that the terrorists came from, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, so don’t expect them to be added to Trump’s wishlist of banned countries anytime soon.) If Americans continue to allow the actions of a selfish, bigoted few — or even a selfish, bigoted many — to dictate their policies, it will come back to bite all of them in the ass, which will in turn affect the rest of the world. And it will come from the inside.

(You may notice that I used the word “selfish” repeatedly. Not that I don’t know how to use a thesaurus, but “selfish” is the best and most direct way to describe all these people and their self-serving actions, and I do not want to mince words. Perhaps they will finally realise it themselves.)

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