S. Korea's Hit Zombie Film Is Also A Searing Critique Of Korean Society

Sep 1, 2016
Originally published on September 1, 2016 7:25 am

A zombie flick is smashing box office records in South Korea. Train to Busan has been seen by an estimated 11 million Koreans — a fifth of the population — and broken numerous records, including the highest single-day ticket sales in Korean film history.

The plot isn't complicated: Everyday South Koreans find themselves trapped on a speeding bullet train with fast-multiplying zombies, creating the kind of claustrophobic feel that freshens up the zombie trope. But beyond a fast-paced summer thriller, it's also an extended critique of Korean society.

"We don't trust anyone but ourselves," says film critic Youn Sung-eun, who writes for the Busan Daily.

Without giving too much of the story away, the film blames corporate callousness for the death toll. The government covers up the truth — or is largely absent. And the crew? Rather than rescue passengers, it follows the wishes of a businessman.

In the film, those in charge — and the media— "are easily manipulated by others," Youn says, which she said is a message the film's director was sending about the institutions here.

These themes are particularly resonant in South Korea, which in 2014 faced national tragedy after 300 people, mostly teenagers, died when a ferry overturned in the sea. Investigators found the ferry's corporate owners overloaded it to save money. And the captain and crew got into lifeboats without rescuing passengers.

News media, toeing the government line, originally reported that everyone survived. The Korean president's whereabouts on that day are still unexplained.

"After that accident, we have big trauma," Youn says.

It didn't let up. Last year, as Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, spread in South Korea, the government didn't disclose key information about where patients were being treated and how officials would contain the outbreak, instead demanding that people trust them.

Outside a screening of Train to Busan in Seoul's Yongsan district, movie-goers like Wonwoo Park say they get it.

"Korea changed a lot in the last few years. We have to recognize we are pretty selfish," he says. "And we have to change."

While the message is clear, it's also just a fun summer flick, which probably explains its success more than its take on Korean society.

"The movie was the first made in Korea about zombies," film-goer Sharon Cho says. "And the actors were good."

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In South Korea, a zombie flick is smashing box office records. It's called "Train To Busan." It has all the elements of a blockbuster thriller, and it also comes packed with a searing critique of modern life in Korea. NPR's Seoul correspondent Elise Hu explains.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The plot of "Train To Busan" isn't complicated. Everyday South Koreans find themselves trapped on a speeding train with fast-multiplying zombies. It creates just the kind of claustrophobic, fast-paced feel to freshen up the zombie trope.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRAIN TO BUSAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Zombie, growling).

HU: The action unfolds on the two-hour bullet train ride from Seoul, the South Korean capital, to the coastal city of Busan. As the train speeds south, passengers fight desperately to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRAIN TO BUSAN")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Screaming).

HU: But film critic Youn Sung-eun, who writes for the Busan Daily, says the film is much more than your everyday zombie thriller. She calls it an extended critique of today's Korean society.

YOUN SUNG-EUN: We don't trust anyone but ourselves.

HU: Without giving too much of the story away, the film blames corporate callousness for the death toll. The government is covering up the truth or largely absent. And the crew, rather than rescue passengers, follows the wishes of a businessman.

YOUN: They are easily manipulated by others, like the business guy.

HU: Do you think that's what the director is saying about people in power in Korea?

YOUN: Yeah, and media as well.

HU: Oh, right, the media - they were just reporting anything, right? That everybody was safe?

YOUN: Yeah.

HU: These criticisms are especially pointed in South Korea. In 2014, more than 300 people, mostly teenagers, died in a ferry accident. Investigators found the ferry's corporate owners overloaded it to save money. News media, toeing the government line, first reported everyone survived. The president's whereabouts on that day are still unexplained.

YOUN: After that accident, we have big trauma.

HU: Kind of societal trauma?

YOUN: Yeah. Yes.

HU: It didn't let up. Last year, as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome spread in South Korea, the government didn't disclose key information about where patients were being treated and how officials would contain the outbreak, instead just demanding Koreans trust them.

Outside a theater showing of "Train To Busan" in central Seoul, movie-goers like Wonwoo Park say they get it.

WONWOO PARK: Korea changes a lot in the last few years. So - and we have to recognize that we are pretty selfish and change the way - I think we have to change.

HU: The film has broken all kinds of records, scoring the biggest single-day ticket sales in Korean film history. Eleven million people here have seen it, which is more than a fifth of the country's population. People get the underlying messages, but it's also just a fun summer flick. Film-goer Sharon Cho says she just came for the zombies.

SHARON CHO: The movie was the first made in Korea about zombies, and the actors were good.

HU: So those who don't want to analyze Korean society can just settle in...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRAIN TO BUSAN")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Screaming).

HU: ...And enjoy the undead. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.