Brief notes on The Priests and The Wailing, Seoul Station and Train to Busan, and why they matter.
You are most welcome to read about The Priests and The Wailing here.
If The Wailing uses the potential presence of living dead in the woods as one of the possible explanation of gruesome murders, the following two films take them for the main menace. Both, Animated Seoul Station and Train to Busan embrace the generally accepted reading of zombies as an analogy of brainwashed, manipulated people and add a national twist. Unlike the possessed girl in The Priests or “possessed” girl in The Wailing, zombies don’t have the power to use their will and change their state. They can only fall deeper into their zombie-ness or die.
Seoul Station finds its most amiable characters among the lowest social ranks, and among the generation of (lost) youth and of elders; the middle generation, generation of parents is represented as rather violent with no compassion and thus doesn’t get much sympathies (the young woman´s father). That is on the bright side as Yoon’s previous films, The King of Pigs and The Fake have zero to none characters to cheer for. Otherwise, you can expect the same measure of harsh look into the officially hidden layers of Korean society. The interaction of the characters shows the constant presence of toxic masculinity in Korean society, as the young woman – prostitute wanting to quit her job is forced to continue by not only financial situation, but mainly by her boyfriend, gambler and gamer; father that searches for her gets his way acting violently. On the other hand, it also shows the capacity of compassion of the elderly and among the poor: the homeless man first feverishly looks for help for “sick” buddy, then taking care of the young woman. Consequently, the only peaceful place and temporal refuge is a lavish model apartment that nor the young woman, nor the man could ever afford; yet not even the rich housing is safe in the end. One of the most powerful scenes, nonetheless, comes with the two and some other survivors trapped between raging zombies and the military shooting those who are left with some capacity of thinking and deciding for themselves; they don’t comply with the demand of being obedient citizens. Thus, they face three choices: become a zombie, get killed, or try to hide with constant menace of the two.
Train to Busan is considered a loose sequel to Seoul Station. Yet, being audience friendlier, it smoothes some edges and up scales the main protagonists. Nevertheless, the idea of the inability to set and to keep a functioning full family, class differences with selfishness of the upper class, and blindfolded infected citizens (no mention of “zombies” here) are omnipresent. The father, always working businessman is taking his little daughter from Seoul to Busan to her mother. The girl is mainly raised by her mother and by her grandmother while at Seoul; unlike her father, she doesn’t think twice to give her seat to an elderly lady, and being able to engage communication on the base of sympathy and trust. Among the prominent characters we too have a rather arrogant man in his early forties with pregnant wife, two elderly sisters, school kids, the train operator and another businessman – director. Train itself and its ride are easily read as road to higher standards and forward, towards better tomorrows. Except for the danger is getting more eminent, the numbers of infected are rising and more and more they occupy the strategic positions not only on the train, but also on the train stations. And no one knows the actual status of the final destination. Under pressure, individual characters become their true colours; the father is learning his lesson on compassion, on common fight, on taking risks to save not only self. People who seemed a unit of selfishness turn out to be able of sacrifice, the scared of bravery. And some just think of themselves, wielding their social and financial status, turning the fear of others into own advantage. In the meantime, Yoon’s film let us watch desperate yet fruitless attempts to (re)establish and keep a family. It is the threat of never again having one, that re-starts the father to become Father of the family, there is young family expecting a baby, two elderly sisters, and the couple of school kids. Getting closer to Busan, various events with political and historical background get into the way. Busan, actually, became port of hope during the Korean War, as in summer 1950 the UN troops established a perimeter around the City, after the North Korean troops managed to push south. The events of Train to Busan are quite reminiscent of the still ongoing war, but this time, the main threat comes from Seoul, the very heart of political power of the country. It is then hardly a coincidence, that the infected are irritated by the sound and sight of those still able to chose own ways, and shut down by media news.
The four films, The Priests, The Wailing, Seoul Station and Train to Busan are among the mainstream and independent Korean films that in hidden yet quite obviously attacked the political situation in the country. Just a little note here: what became “Korean Rasputin Scandal” in Autumn 2016 had been known months before. Some of these films, that managed not to get on the black list of films and film-makers, were made with on mind; some other film has recently got a green light.