Between Selfishness and Sacrifice: The Ambiguous Journey of ‘Train to Busan’

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“However, in the film, just a zombie is caught between the living and the dead, there is also an ambiguity of sorts in the opposition between selfishness and sacrifice.” 

Train to Busan is said to be a “searing critique” of Korean society: the inefficiencies of its government, which is grossly misinformed and (deliberately) misinforming the public in the film; the greed and selfishness of corporations; and the me-first attitude of ordinary citizens.

SPOILERS RIGHT AHEAD!

All these are put to right. The selfish citizens in one train car, called “shit” by an elderly character, were fed to the zombies, and our protagonist fund manager gets a tongue lashing from his daughter, for whom her father’s selfishness (You only care about yourself) is the reason for his separation from his wife and his estrangement from his daughter. All is well in the end, however. He thinks not of himself but of his daughter, and sacrifices himself to save her.

This, simply put, is the conflict: between thinking only of oneself and thinking of others. However, in the film, just a zombie is caught between the living and the dead, there is also an ambiguity of sorts in the opposition between selfishness and sacrifice. Yes, the movie does indict selfishness, but it also justifies it. And nowhere is this more evident when one passenger says something along the lines of, “Fathers get all the bad reputation and receive no praise. It’s all about sacrifice, isn’t it?”

This is a short but significant aside. The idea is that estrangement from your family — wife and daughter — is not just an indication and the result of selfishness and materialism. It is also the sacrifice you make, and the price you pay, for pursuing your career and working hard to provide for your family. Korean society is fast-paced and highly competitive. Yes, fathers are rightly to be blamed for being selfish and ruining families, but they also have to be praised and acknowledged for their work. In this sense, our protagonist’s sacrifice did not occur only at the end, but even before that. He has always been sacrificing his family precisely for their sake.

Thus, in the film, there is no neat division between selfishness and sacrifice. Neither is there a smooth journey from the former to the latter. And the ambiguity is illustrated by the penultimate scene of the movie. Both father and daughter finally reconcile; he promises to be there and not leave her ever again. But before we relish this happily-ever-after twist, it turns out that he has to break this promise in order to save her: by sacrificing himself so that she can live.

Train to Busan undeniably lambastes selfishness, and applauds, calls for, and rewards unselfishness. It’s not insignificant that the two survivors from the train were arguably the nicest and kindest characters in the film. At the same time, however, the film also recognizes that the line between selfishness and its opposite is not as clear-cut at times. That there isn’t a simple choice between being there for your family and being absent for them. On the contrary, it is by not being there that you get to be there for your family. Similarly, by breaking your promise not leave and feeding yourself to the zombies is precisely how and why you show you care for them. To put it somewhat in fancier terms, it is by being absent in your family’s life that you are present therein.

Train to Busan then is not just an indictment of a selfish, individualist, and materialist ethic. It also explores its ambiguities, at least in a Korean context. “Fathers get all the bad reputation and get no praise. It’s all about sacrifice, isn’t it?” Does doing all you can to provide for your family a sign of (excessive) materialism and selfish act, or an unselfish one?

We see a similar dilemma/double-bind even in Western films and TV programs, especially in superhero movies. Superman or Spiderman ditches the love of his life because he has to save others, but is then thought to be absent and uncaring. “To me, you’re just an empty seat,” says Mary Jane to Peter Parker in Spiderman (2002). And how many times have we heard from our heroes that they don’t want to be in a relationship with their soul mates because they want to protect them? That they hide their secret, superhero identities because they want to keep their loved ones safe? Hence, many of them are resigned to their fate of being forever alone.  The price they pay and the sacrifice they make to fulfill their duty and destiny.

Of course, in Train to Busan, as in superhero movies, the choice between selfishness and sacrifice doesn’t have to be as black-and-white as it is made out to be. After all, why can’t we have both: work hard for our family and be there for them at the same time? Can’t one be as unselfish as possible? Well, like most things, it’s easier said than done, as is striking a balance between and among our many different duties. We all agree that it’s good to think of others, but fail dismally to do so everyday.  Also, we want that a father be there for his family and provide for them all at the same, but is that as easy as it sounds? Is it just a matter of stronger commitment and better time management? Or does finding this balance entail tackling a larger phenomenon — the nature of work, love, and family in a highly competitive, rat-race society such as Korea’s? Or perhaps a (moral) revolution that would create the conditions wherein we can overturn our “selfish” nature?

At any rate, that unselfishness is no easy matter is revealed by another significant aside, this time from an elderly passenger. Seeing her sister trapped in a car filled with zombies, she reflects how she, the trapped sister, has always thought of others, but then asks, “for what purpose?” The question is posed as a complaint against, or at least, an interrogation of the ethic of sacrifice and unselfishness. Why sacrifice yourself? What’s the point when the unselfish, who do not deserve to do so, actually suffer and die?

It is true that the film rewards its two female survivors in the end because they deserve to be (they’re nice after all), but the elderly passenger’s complaint is vindicated in the way their rescue is portrayed. The scene shows how much danger they are (still) in, and how precarious their existence is. Walking in the dark tunnel, the two female survivors lay at the mercy of the sniper, who could not determine if they were zombies or not. Presumably because he could not take any risks or he was just damn uncaring, the soldiers’ commanding officer just tells them to shoot; and the sniper, about halfway pulling through the trigger, only stops when Soo-an, the child, sings. His fellows rush to meet the survivors. It’s not exactly a happy ending and a flattering portrait of a government when you know that it is literally in the dark about its citizens and is willing to shoot them regardless.

Apart from being a sign of a heartless government, the walking-in-the-dark tunnel scene aptly symbolizes the ambiguous status of people who think of others and sacrifice themselves  (metaphorically speaking at least). Just like zombies, they are caught between life and death. And if dying seems too far off the notion of thinking of others, the Christian tradition, not to mention Buddhism, speaks of dying to ourselves, of dying to sin and desire, and of losing our lives so that we may find it. Christians then have the liminal status of zombies. At any rate, the association with death is clear in the case of selfless passengers in the actual train to Busan, who did give up their lives for others. And it is also evident in our two survivors. Walking in the dark tunnel, they were not identified by the soldiers; were they living or dead? And that they barely survived indicates how precariously close they were to life and death. Literally on the thin line, or split second, between the two.

Our indignation at selfishness and admiration for unselfishness has to come with a caveat. Sacrifice (literal and metaphoric) is laudable but tragic, a difficult pill to swallow, not least when you are the one being asked or forced to do so, even if you were to going to do it willingly. Even Christ shirked at first at the thought of dying on the cross. Thinking of others is well and good, but there are moments when it is not to be treated cavalierly. As in the ancient world and in Christianity, sacrifice — literal, figurative, metaphoric — is tragic but necessary, but to us moderns, it would perhaps be preferable if people did not have to sacrifice themselves (especially in the literal sense) for others. But if it is unavoidable, who has to do so, how often and to what extent, and for what purpose? When is sacrifice essential, and when is it exploitation? Those are the questions.

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