Opinion articles

The Passive Protagonist: Assessing the agency of trains as opposed to the human protagonist within the narrative of Train to Busan

by Sum Hung Yee

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Trains have, for a long time, played a significant role in cinema. In this essay, I seek to analyse Train to Busan, a 2016 South Korean action horror film directed by Yeon Sang-ho. Train to Busan centres around a small group of survivors as they travel on a train towards Busan during a zombie apocalypse. The main protagonist is Seok-woo, a Korean businessman who devotes little affection to his family. At the point of the zombie outbreak, he takes his daughter on a high-speed train ride to Busan to visit his ex-wife. The story of Train to Busan largely takes place on two trains: The high-speed train and the small locomotive near the end of the film.

In “The Apocalypse is a Nonhuman Story”, Leif Sorensen argues that “nonhuman agencies and energies, as well as their unpredictable effects on the humans with whom they are entangled, emerge as crucial to any effort to understand our present moment” (524). In essence, Sorensen makes the claim that these texts portray nonhuman objects as possessing an undeniable degree of agency, and that “both human and nonhuman agencies and scales demand attention” (530). Sorensen concludes that the texts he examines, such as Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2010) and Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991), “theorize—that is, give speculative form to—the constellations of human and nonhuman agencies that emerge as readers, writers, and characters grapple with apocalyptic scenarios that expose the frailty of the human and its codependence on the nonhuman” (542).

Conventionally, the train is seen as an inanimate object, one which lacks consciousness. The train thus seems unimportant in comparison to the human characters within films. On the other hand, protagonists, are usually expected to be “at the [centre] of a decision making process that causes the story to progress” (146). As such, one might conclude that protagonists are key drivers of their narratives, while inanimate objects like the trains are of secondary, or even negligible, importance. However,this line of reasoning within Train to Busan may not be correct. Firstly, the film’sprotagonist, Seok-woo, does not survive to the end of the film, yet the diegetic world of the film does not end. This observation hints that the film’s protagonist may not be the sole focus within the film, and that the film’s narrative may not be completely dependent on his agency. Secondly, the incorporation of the train is a practice often witnessed in many films today, such as Snowpiercer. As stated by Taïna Tuhkunen, “Since the onrushing locomotive speeding towards the audience became one of the founding myths and iconic shots of film history, cinema has not ceased to exploit the dramatic, diegetic and symbolic potential of trains” (1). Reinforcing Tuhkunen’s view, Snowpiercer’s train, rather than serving as a mere mode of transportation, also symbolises the “progress of capitalism” (O Croidheain). Thus, within similar films, the train serves a more significant role within their narratives than previously thought. This leads me to the suspicion that the trains within Train to Busan are not simply inert, insignificant objects, subject to the agency of the protagonist.

In this essay, I wish to extend Sorensen’s argument regarding the presence of nonhuman agency. I will argue that within Train to Busan, the agency possessed by nonhuman entities – the trains in the film – are not only present, but at times, eclipse the agency possessed by the protagonist. As with the texts examined by Sorensen, where “humanity is exposed to and irreversibly reshaped by nonhuman forces and modes of agency”, the trains in Train to Busan not only affect the narrative, but also, at times, supplant the protagonist as primary actors within the film, with their interactions with humans affecting the trajectory of the film’s narrative.

The high-speed train and small locomotive within Train to Busan serve as nonhuman agents that the human characters depend on. Seok-woo, as a human character, is also reliant on the trains, regardless of his role as the human protagonist. In a way, Train to Busan introduces a relationship of dependence between the train and the protagonist. By serving as an enclosed environment, these trains protect the human survivors, including the protagonist, from the external threat of zombies, a task that the protagonist himself is unable to accomplish. To illustrate this point, when the train passengers alight at Daejeon station and are attacked by the zombies, they instinctively escape to the high-speed train. Seok-woo, the protagonist, also presents himself as helpless in this instance, choosing to escape into the high-speed train along with the other remaining survivors. The high-speed train is thus an entity that provides for the safety of its human passengers. Similarly, the humble locomotive ferries the remaining survivors towards their destination, shielding them from zombie attacks. This idea is emphasised in a scene where a large horde of zombies chase after the locomotive, but are unable to climb on board.

Train to Busan on Twitter: "fun run hahaha zombie"  / Twitter
The locomotive ferries the remaining survivors away from danger.

Interestingly, the agentic role of the locomotive is further illustrated in the events near the end of the film. When Seok-woo is bitten and will be converted into a zombie, he chooses to jump off the train, sacrificing his life. This instance signifies Seok-woo’s acknowledgement of the locomotive’s agency, and in turn, the diminishment of his capacity for agency. Due to being infected, Seok-woo understands his threat to the remaining survivors and that he will no longer have the capability to ensure their safety. At the same time, he recognises the locomotive’s agentic capacity in ensuring the survival of the remaining passengers as it ferries them towards the military base at Busan. As a result, he accepts his fate and willingly sacrifices his life. This attitude is a stark contrast to his initial confidence in securing the safety of himself and his daughter, seen in the instance where he uses his connections in an attempt to receive special treatment and protection, which signifies his strong belief in his human agency.

As a consequence of relying on the high-speed train for safety, the human survivors, including Seok-woo, also depend on the circumstances surrounding the train when making their decisions. As a result,  the human characters, including the protagonist, are subservient to the agency of the nonhuman train, which is seen in the train’s establishment of particular circumstances within the narrative. A particular instance of this observation is when a group of characters, including Seok-woo, decide to rescue several passengers who have been trapped within the zombie-filled cars of the high-speed train. During their passage through the train’s dangerous cars, Seok-woo and his group realise that the zombies are unresponsive in the dark and decide to capitalise on the train’s passage through several dark tunnels to rescue the trapped survivors. The human characters’ rescue plan hinges on the train’s passage through the tunnels, which only the train is fully in control of. In this instance, Seok-woo, the protagonist, is seen to surrender control of the narrative’s circumstances to the nonhuman agent: the high-speed train.

Additionally, as the high-speed train and the locomotive operate as the environment in which the human characters have no means of escape and are forced to interact, they function as nonhuman agents within the background of the narrative, surpassing the protagonist in agentic importance. Throughout the film, these trains serve as protection from the dangers of the zombie apocalypse, inevitably forcing the human survivors to be confined within them. As the human survivors encounter zombies within the highspeed train, they are forced to engage with not only these zombies, but also one another. This engagement then allows for the character development of the protagonist as he transforms from a somewhat selfish character into a more compassionate individual. In specific instance of the film. Seok-woo and another character, Sang-hwa, decide to rescue their loved ones who are trapped in another car, separated by other zombie-filled cars. Yet, as they proceed on their return trip, they realise that Yong-suk, the human antagonist, has selfishly barricaded the doors to his car, out of fear that they have been infected. This act of cowardice reasonably disgusts Seok-woo, who is established to be selfish himself. The high-speed train confines Seok-woo within its premises, allowing Seok-woo no means of escape. It forces Seok-woo’s interactions with Yong-suk and thus aids Seok-woo in his moral transition. Similarly, the humble locomotive’s cramped environment enables the final confrontation between Seok-woo and the partially zombified Yong-suk, and also forces Seok-woo to come to the decision of self-sacrifice upon being infected. In both cases, Seok-woo himself plays a passive role by being subject to the confines of the train’s environment. Within this aspect of the narrative, Seok-woo’s agency is eclipsed by that of the high-speed train.

Moreover, the high-speed train’s agency can even be felt in Seok-woo’s brief moment of heroism, when he decides to sacrifice himself. While we may expect the protagonist to be the key decision maker of the story, as observed by Duncan, it becomes apparent that this may not always be true. On the one hand. the key decision of Seok-woo to sacrifice his own life is superficially a product of his own volition, and thus, Seok-woo appears to possess some degree of agency. On the other hand, however, this decision is also a result of his moral transition throughout the entirety of the film, which is, in turn, a consequence of the train’s agentic role. It thus becomes apparent that Seok-woo does not have complete control over this decision, which receives some degree of influence from the various catalysts for his character development. The high-speed train which is responsible for this thus reveals itself to be a nonhuman agent whose agency trumps that of the protagonist himself.

I put 'Best Day Ever' Spongebob over Seok-Woo's Death - YouTube
An infected Seok-woo smiles as he recounts happy memories of him and his daughter, moments before taking his own life.

Furthermore, these trains in Train to Busan are nonhuman agents that at times supplant the human protagonist in their degrees of agency, simply due to their roles as nonhuman protagonists within the film. These roles are not all-too dissimilar from Seok-woo’s and are a implication of the trains’ function as symbols within the narrative. By symbolising not only the physical journey to Busan, the trains also represent the narrative of the journey in Train to Busan — perhaps even in a more significant manner than the protagonist himself. The representation of the journey to Busan is conducted through the representation of the trains’ physical states throughout the journey. Initially, the journey begins on the high-speed train. Its interior is in pristine condition, and its occupants behave in a civilised manner. As the survivors continue their journey, the interior of the train becomes caked in blood, and the train itself gradually becomes occupied by zombies. The remaining human occupants, who fear for their lives, also behave frantically and irrationally. Towards the end of the journey, the high-speed train is destroyed, and the few who survive travel on a small locomotive to get to the military base at Busan. In a way, the physical state of the survivors’ mode of transportation serves as a reflection of the protagonist’s struggles throughout their journey, not only serving as a representation of the physical journey, but also reflecting the narrative progression of the film. The humble locomotive stands in contrast to the majestic and pristine high-speed train in the beginning of the film, emphasising the long and arduous journey undertaken by the survivors. Framed within this scale, the trains are the nonhuman protagonists of the film, and are central characters within the journey to Busan. Considering this perspective and Duncan’s claim that about the protagonist’s importance within a story (146), the previous points in this essay, which reveal that the trains play agentic roles within the film, also appear less surprising.

Train To Busan On Netflix: Ranking The Korean Zombie Movie's 12 Most  Shocking Scenes - GameSpot
A locomotive, engulfed in flames, rushes towards and collides with the high-speed train

While this discussion largely revolves around the tiny locomotive and the high-speed train, a third train also displays its hegemonic agency within the film, if only for a brief moment. In contrast to the protective roles of the humble locomotive and the high-speed train, this train’s agency lies in the threat it presents to the protagonist, human characters, and the nonhuman high-speed train. In other words, this train serves as an antagonist. Engulfed in flames, this third train speeds towards the high-speed train and collides with it, derailing the high-speed train and unleashing a horde of trapped zombies onto the remaining survivors (1:31:50). In this instance, this train progresses the narrative by presenting a threat to the human and nonhuman actors. Seok-woo, who is powerless to affect these events, is forced to escape from the zombies unleashed by the collision. Where the humble locomotive and the high-speed train serve protective roles, this train derives its agency through its role as an antagonist.

The trains within Train to Busan are nonhuman agents that play a significant role in the film’s narrative. In the case of the high-speed train and the humble locomotive, the trains are central characters within a different scale of the narrative, symbolising the journey within Train to Busan. Their interactions with their human passengers present the human occupants, including the protagonist, as powerless, and dependent on them. Due to this dependence, the human occupants’ decisions are greatly influenced by the trains, and which serve as the immediate environments the humans operate within. On the flip side, the flaming train serves an antagonistic role, posing a direct threat to other actors, including the protagonist. When it appears, the other actors of the film are subject to immediate danger, and its interactions with these actors drive the narrative forward. In both cases. the human protagonist, regardless of his glorified role, is subject to the whims of the nonhuman agent, and his agency can be said to be diminished and even eclipsed by the trains of Train to Busan.

Works Cited

Duncan, Stephen V. A Guide To Screenwriting Success. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, p. 146.

Leger, Shewonda. “What Is Character Agency?”. Spartan Ideas, 2021, Accessed 20 Oct 2021.

O Croidheain, Caoimhghin. “Snowpiercer (2013): The Fate of Capitalism as a Globalist Runaway Train (Eco-Nihilism, Supra-Nationalism, and Societal Collapse)”. (2020).

Sorensen, Leif. “The Apocalypse is a Nonhuman Story.” ASAP/Journal, vol. 3 no. 3, 2018, p. 523-546. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/asa.2018.0038.

Tuhkunen, Taïna. “Railway And Locomotive Language In Film: Introduction”. Film Journal, vol 3, 2016, Accessed 20 Oct 2021.

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