Welcome, readers, to the first installment of “Fear Needs No Translation,” a bi-weekly summary and review of international horror. I, Justin Fortes, will be your tour guide, conductor, pilot, and captain through this terrifying adventure. Each week, a different film will be analyzed not only for its plot and visual aesthetic, but also for the underlying socioeconomic and political issues that the work attempts to resolve. As we take this journey through the blood-drenched planes that we call horror cinema, keep in mind that we will be stepping into territories past our own borders. Let’s throw on our cultural sunglasses and buckle up; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
As our train pulls into the station of our first film, please be aware of zombies rampantly roaming about the platform. In the 2016 Korean film, Train to Busan (originally titled Busanaheng), director Sang-ho Yeon takes on the challenge of reviving the undead of George Romero’s nightmarish hellscape for a new generation of horror-heads. With a resume exclusively composed of animated films prior to Busan’s release, Sang-ho surprisingly entered the international horror scene, storming in and showing no sign of slowing down.
The plot follows a group of passengers aboard a train with what begins as a simple ride, but one that slowly turns into a fight for survival against the zombified remains of their fellow travelers. Starring Yoo Gong as Seok-woo, our protagonist shows that when put into a near fatal situation, we’ll throw life and limb — or multiple limbs — to the wind to protect those dearest to us. In highlighting the mixture of an all-star cast with Sang-ho’s cinematographic mastery, viewers are brought through a scenic route, twisting and turning in an action-packed dystopia that will stop your heart, jump-scare it back to life, then mercilessly tug at your heartstrings.
Film veteran Yoo Gong is no stranger to the camera, and brilliantly put his skills on display. His portrayal of Seok-woo — a divorced, single father consumed by his career in order to support his daughter, Soo-an (Kim Su-an) — makes the character easily one of the most believable in the international horror scene. Desperate not only for his own survival, but that of his daughter’s as well, Seok-woo transforms from distant paternal figure to unexpected hero. Sang-ho makes this character development visual through the polar pairing with Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), a self-absorbed businessman, surviving only through the sacrifice of his fellow passengers. By the end of the film, Yon-suk has become a reflection of the monster that Seok-woo once was.
Both the costumes and the special-effects makeup add to the narrative by pointing out the backstory to the characters, as well as how it affects them in the plot. In particular, Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) has an expertly crafted costume. When introduced, his suit coat is very reminiscent of a bath robe, giving him an atmospheric feel of bumhood. Later shedding this coat, he proves to be otherwise, and becomes a hero that an audience cannot help but love.
The heartthrob of the film comes in the form of Yong-guk, played by Choi Woo-sik. By wearing a white jumpsuit, which is adorned by clean-cut lines, and wielding a baseball bat, Yong-guk shows verisimilitude to “the knight in shining armor” stereotype as he charges into battle. His counterpart, Jin-hee (played by the always lovely Sohee), wears a similar coat with a plaid skirt, identifying her as his princess locked away in a tower (or, a train car in this case). The two share a story in intertextual conversation with Romeo and Juliet as their love is ripped apart.
The outfit of Soo-an reveals the most dynamic backstory of any character in the film. Being the child of a broken home, she lost her innocent views of the world at a young age. Through most of the film, she is seen wearing a light grey shirt covered by a dark crimson cardigan. A direct reflection of her once pure view of the world, now dirtied by the black relationship of her parents, the clothes are a direct foreshadowing of how this lifestyle is soon covered by the blood of strangers, furthering the destruction of her childhood.
Of course, a review of any zombie flick would be incomplete without analyzing the makeup behind the horror. Drawing inspirations from a plethora of undead revivals including The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and World War Z (2013), the talented makeup artists of Train to Busan create a zombie of “Frankenstein-like” means. Taking the classical trope of dead eyes and combining it with the new world zombie of the biotechnological era, the creatures in this movie create a class of monster all their own. Veins popping through ashen skin, milky white eyes, and teeth filed down to canines, these running terrorists are no joking matter.
The cause of the undead monstrosities is revealed to be of biotechnological origins. In our ever-advancing industrialized society, Song-ho uses Train to Busan as an outlet to portray what may happen when man over steps the boundary of progression and Godliness. As of recent, scientists have been able to develop artificial intelligence whose capacity to learn is astonishing. From robots capable of rebalancing themselves, to androids that reciprocate human emotion, AI has become the future of technology, but will this development be a step forward, or will it turn into the monster of our demise?
Busan also takes a look into factory practices, and its effects on the environment. The movie starts with a deer coming back to life after being hit by a truck driver. Though one of the purest animals in the kingdom, the deer appears to come back as an abomination. This is followed by the news story of hundreds of fish dying after chemicals have been dumped into a local water source. Seok-woo is unconcerned hearing this headline, as he views it simply as a business move for his corporation to take advantage of. In my humble opinion, it’s saddening to say that this is the reality of Corporate America and many businesses around the world. Global warming can be viewed as something CEO’s may use to predict the next move to make a profit, but it cannot be categorized as fake news. There are luckily a handful of companies that are doing something to counteract the climate change, but it simply is not enough. Should we continue like this, will Earth soon turn into a habitual wasteland?
Social media has become the biggest outlet for current event updates and other news-worthy stories. For the common person, their Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and mutual Snapchatters are not news correspondents. As a result, the relaying of issues often gets lost in translation. Train to Busan uses this idea and takes it to an extreme. Yes, zombies are fatal when coming across one, but with proper preparation and knowledge, the meeting is survivable. But pandemonium quickly spreads through the train as well as the entirety of South Korea as the media, along with cell phones and word-of-mouth, relay horrifying acts of violence — a reaction similar to that of the Zika virus outbreak prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
While the virus was nothing new to the world — having its first human infection in 1952 — many countries considered boycotting the Olympics due to the harm it may cause their athletes, along with the potential that the virus be brought back to their home country. News outlets and social media users made the virus appear to be significantly more dangerous than it was. Multiple deaths were reported due to the strain, but was commonly seen in less developed areas of Brazil. The mass hysteria surrounding the virus was uncalled for seeing as prevention measures were put into play by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If anything, the everyday web surfer’s ignorance has become the real virus; a global contagion of overreaction becoming a lifestyle.
Train to Busan has brought life back into the zombie flick subgenre thanks to the direction of Sang-ho Yeon and the film’s outstanding cast. It is not only a movie that pays homage to Romero through use of his undead creations, but also by bringing up real social issues in a unique and original story. A truly excellent movie, your emotions will be played with until the very end. Both on a technical and artistic level, Sang-ho has gone beyond the expectations of the traditional horror film and incorporated aspects of action and drama for what can only be described as heart-aching fear.
As this first stop on our journey around the world’s horrors comes to a close, I’ll leave you with the closing line of Train to Busan, “Until we meet again.” Fortes, signing off.
— Justin Fortes, Film Blogger
Do you have a recommendation for a film you’d like to see on Fear Needs No Translation? Contact Justin at FearNNT@gmail.com