As someone who lives somewhat far from campus, I am no stranger to long hours on public transportation. The trip between Baltimore and Massachusetts takes ten hours by bus, which is quite tedious. But it also gives me a lot of time to reflect (and nap). And every now and again, my brain asks me this question (probably primed by the fact that I’m on a moving bus): “Where am I going in life?”
And I would respond, “I don’t know, what does that question even mean? Next question.”
However, in the Korean films, Train to Busan and Snowpiercer, the idea of direction is crucial. Given that these films involve a train and a destination, it is not surprising that they both approach this theme. But Train to Busan is pretty blunt with this, as we already know from the title that the protagonists are trying to reach Busan… by train. Now the question this film poses is how this journey shapes the characters: their emotional direction. And if I could be perfectly honest, I don't think that's very interesting of a question.
To be fair, I should note that Train to Busan is a zombie film; therefore, it is somewhat confined by and borrows from other movies of that genre. The behavior of the zombies is strikingly similar to that of World War Z (fast and maniacal), and it delves into the same ethical dilemma explored by The Walking Dead (who do we let survive, and who is part of our people?). But to its credit, it does break from other zombie films in that it invokes a lot of class-conflict overtones.
Perhaps the most pertinent example of this comes from the interactions between Seok-woo, a young hedge fund manager, and Sang-hwa, a gruff but charismatic every-man. Their first encounter isn’t pleasant; as Sang-hwa is being chased by zombies, Seok-woo initially decides to sacrifice him for the safety of everyone else. There is a shot where Seok-woo looks like a heartless corporate monster. And then he has a change of heart and lets him in, only for Sang-hwa to scold, “All of you people are the same.”
But this is exactly the trap Train to Busan falls into: generic characterization. Seok-woo is the yuppie with the heart of gold. His daughter is the innocent “eyes” through which we see a cruel world. Sang-hwa is the masculine comic relief. The list goes on, with a Romeo and Juliet-esque young couple, an unfeeling, dogmatic middle-aged man who serves as the antagonist, and many more in this cornucopia of archetypes.
And the development of these characters builds like this; Seok-woo, who is only slightly caring in the beginning of the movie, becomes very caring by the end. The young couple, who were flirting in the beginning, die and become zombies together. The antagonist, who is mean in the beginning, becomes even meaner by the climax. Therefore, the direction of this film follows the same predictable manner the title does (and in the way most blockbuster films do). It has a Newtonian storyline, where the force manifests as zombies while objects manifest as the characters.
In Snowpiercer, we are also led to believe that the story will follow a unidirectional story. In this film, humanity is contained in a single train that is protecting it from an icy post-apocalyptic world. The train is divided into two main parts: the upper class and the “scum” in the tail cars. The story follows Curtis Everett, who leads the tail-car-people in a revolutionary struggle to the front engine. The plot is simple enough.
But the plot isn’t everything; as Curtis and his crew advance, each compartment is carefully observed; from the vanity of the garden to the debauchery of the dance club, every aspect of human livelihood is carefully recorded. In addition, every loss of life is significant, as Curtis places the burden on himself. Each step becomes harder and weirder as the crew encounters a crueler and wilder world.
It is evident, then, that director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t just settle for character development. Instead, he allows their environment to change too, creating a dynamic relationship between the train and the revolutionaries.
And, it turns out, the Snowpiercer is not unidirectional. When Curtis finally reaches the Front Engine, Minister Wilford, the creator and caretaker of the engine, subverts both Curtis’ and audience’s expectation by ceding power to him. Curtis realizes that even if he were in power, nothing about the violent system would change; order and balance is far stronger than any human emotion. And as the perpetual motion engine continues to revolve, the film reveals that Curtis hasn’t reached the finish line. He has only made a full circle, ending up in essentially the same place.
However, Snowpiercer presents yet another direction with Namgoong Minsu (a security expert) and his daughter, Yona are presented. Namgoong continually reminds Yona to be aware of the outside world, what lies outside the window. While everyone else is focused on what’s happening inside the train, Namgoong has the acuity to see that the world is becoming habitable. Since the train completely derails by the end, destroying the microcosm everyone has been so obsessed about, Namgoong’s prescience prevails. If anybody “wins” in this movie, it is those who (literally) think outside the box. Perhaps this could be a lesson for other filmmakers.
Now let me ask myself the question I posed in the beginning of this entry: “Where am I going in life?”
My current answer: “Forward, and then some.”