Fatherhood on the Train to Busan

[This first appeared on The Jagged Word on June 16.]

I search out movies the way I search out music: not according to genre, but according to what strikes a human chord. I like music that says something, not music that fits a commercial niche. I don’t want to be sold something; I want to be told something.

So when it comes to horror movies (in which there are, of course, many sub-genres), I need something beyond making me jump. That can be fun for a little while, because the scare is not real. Perhaps we like those films because it’s a way for us to release the stress of real-life fears and we can still turn off the tv at the end. I recently saw Lake Bodom, a Finnish-Estonian horror based around an unsolved murder of four teenagers in 1960. It’s well done and the tension is stretched taught. But, in the end, it’s not much more than a Scandinavian slasher film. If that’s your thing, I’d recommend it. But I can do without the mere spreading of blood and gore across a forest.

On the other hand, there are horrors that touch something far deeper than our fright reflex. Recently, I’ve been impressed by It Follows, The Babadook, and The Taking of Deborah Logan, films that deal with STDs, the death of a father and husband, and dementia, respectively.

Most recently, I watched Train to Busan, a Korean zombie movie that isn’t really about the zombies (fast, as in World War Z, not slow as in the classic zombie films) or the virus that creates them.

By the way, outside of horrors, Korean filmmakers are doing some of the most original and creative work out there. If you don’t mind subtitles (or you speak Korean), take a chance on A Hard Day (2015), I Saw the Devil (2011), The Phone (2015), or The Beauty Inside (2015). And Snowpiercer, if you haven’t seen it.

Obviously, The Walking Dead has capitalized on the zombie genre in the past few years. And it, like Train to Busan, uses zombies to push the viewer to consider moral character and what it actually means to be human. In the case of Train to Busan, it is the moral character of a father that is at issue. Will Seok-woo continue to neglect his young daughter, Soo-an; disappoint his mother; and manage funds without concern for the consequences of his actions? The depth of his self-absorption shows when he buys Soo-an for her birthday the exact same gift that he had given her earlier in the year.

Failing fathers who learn from their actions and resolve to do better is not exactly a new device, but the presence of zombies forces Seok-woo’s hand. Infected flesh-eaters tend to do that. On this train, not only Seok-woo, but everyone is put to the test. What kind of people, really, are the travelers? When death threatens to consume you (more or less literally), what is the foundation of your character? There is both heroism and cowardice throughout, and many of the characters—even the minor characters are surprisingly robust—come to crises of personal decision.

Seok-woo has two foils in the film, who finally show themselves to be opposites. There is the husband and father, Sang-hwa, and the rich and selfish Yon-suk. Sang-hwa is introduced as somewhat cynical, certainly toward Seok-woo and his job—even going so far as to criticize Seok-woo in front of Soo-an. She, far from being defensive, takes it in stride as the attitude everyone has naturally toward her father. Yon-suk emerges later in the film as a sort of Ghost of Father Future, the negative to Sang-hwa’s positive. Toward which of these men will Seok-woo trend? What small decisions in the course of a life add up to a momentous decision that one may not be able to reverse?

Horror movies seem to be able to go places that otherwise conventional narratives are unable to go. What but a horror is able, in our proud and unashamed culture, to play out the devastation of an STD? What but a horror can push the viewer into the full surreality of dementia and profound grief? What—to the point—but a horror can make us seriously consider manhood and fatherhood and sacrifice? Train to Busan has not one sacrifice by a father, but two. Certainly, non-horror have done it (see Take Shelter—though even this film introduces a supernatural element in order to tell its story). But horror is able to sneak past our ultra-modern, learned defenses and strike us in parts of our psyches we pretend to have eradicated.

Soo-an’s haunting version of “Aloha ‘Oe” ties the film together as both the catalyst for her father’s action—an embarrassed and unfinished attempt to sing it in school—and a possibly unending eulogy sung in honor of her father’s sacrifice. Can a zombie movie make you cry? Let Train to Busan give it a shot.

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