by Jason Lee
For years, in apocalyptic cinema, the rich and wealthy have always been portrayed in a negative light—snobbish, inconsiderate, and egotistical. In Rainer Zitelmann’s study from the book, The Rich in Public Opinion: What we think about when we think about Wealth, one of the most common frames associated with the wealthy is the notion that they are profit-minded individuals that will do anything in their power to satisfy their greed (Zitelmann, 2020). Such frames are often emphasised in apocalyptic movies where the rich have vast amounts of resources at their disposal, almost guaranteeing their survival. However, while they are willing to do anything it takes for their family to survive, oftentimes, these wealthy individuals end up suffering and in some cases, perish. Also known on social media as ‘Eat-the-Rich’ films, these movies intentionally portray the rich in a negative light and depict the underprivileged seeking vengeance by syphoning wealth from the upper class (Castro, 2020). As income inequality becomes a pressing issue in our society, these films are becoming increasingly popular as they better represent and relate to the lives of working-class people that form a majority of the audience (Castro, 2020). Hence, this article seeks to study and compare two post-apocalyptic films that explore the ‘Eat-the-rich’ theme in different styles. Although both films offer two different perspectives on how apocalypses influence power dynamics within the rich and the underprivileged classes, they ultimately argue that the maintenance of divisive social structures in a post-apocalyptic world will only bring about more harm than good and hence highlights the need for a reset in societal norms.
Snowpiercer (2013), directed by Bong Joon Ho, is set in a post-apocalyptic world seven years after climate change has ravaged the earth, with the only survivors left on earth onboard a high-speed train circumnavigating the globe. The disparity in experiences aboard the train, however, is large with the rich and wealthy occupying most of the carriages at the front, living in opulence, while most of the poor and needy are squeezed into the carriages in the rear, suffering from illnesses and diseases.
In Train to Busan (2016), directed by Yeon Sang-ho, a zombie outbreak occurs in South Korea while passengers are onboard the titular train. When a rabid zombie is discovered onboard, passengers fight and scramble for their lives. Despite coming from varying social backgrounds, all social structures of wealth crumble away as the apocalypse ensues, forcing passengers to work together and strategise to guarantee their survival. Although critics may argue that Train to Busan represents an apocalyptic film instead of a post-apocalyptic one, it can be argued that ‘the train itself simulates a post-apocalyptic world, due to the establishment of a mental picture of the ongoing crisis despite the limited flow of information from the outside world’ (Chandar, 2020).
In both films, the ‘Eat-the-rich’ theme is explored and portrayed through varying methods. In Snowpiercer, the theme is established at the beginning, when the upper class uses great amounts of force and abuse to coerce the underprivileged into doing menial tasks, sowing the seeds of hatred in the eyes of the poor. A big catalyst that led to the revolt was the fact that these upper-class individuals were abducting children for the purpose of child labour. This motivates the main protagonist, Curtis, to launch an attack, fighting off the resistance as they push their way to the upper carriages of the train. Revenge is achieved despite encountering multiple attacks along the way, as the rich and wealthy ultimately lose when Curtis and his team manage to destroy the train, instantly killing the rich and powerful individuals and putting an end to the conflict.
In Train to Busan, although a direct conflict does not take place between the rich and the poor, the ‘Eat-the-rich’ theme is equally apparent from the start. This is seen when the main antagonist, Yong-Suk, a successful C-suite businessman from the KTX train’s parent company, makes a rude comment about the tramp and reminds Soo-An, the young daughter of protagonist Seok-Woo to study hard to not end up like the tramp. Such comments reflect the egoistical, selfish attitude of the wealthy, and in this case, Yong-Suk’s character, as he acts as an allegory to the rich and wealthy in our present society. As the film progresses, Yong-Suk’s personality is further developed and demonised as he prioritises his safety over the rest, sacrificing passengers to ensure he survives. Ultimately, Yong-Suk meets his demise when he is bitten by an infected zombie, sealing his fate of survival.
Another similarity observed in both films is the way in which the rich are portrayed and established. Despite both films being directed by different directors, wealthy individuals are portrayed in a similar light as selfish, egoistical individuals, akin to the frame established in Zitelmann’s study.
In Snowpiercer, Minister Mason, the second-in-command of the train, exerts dominance over the underprivileged in her speech, declaring in a supercilious voice, ‘I am the hat. You are the shoe. Know your place. Take your place. Be a shoe.’ In this statement, she clearly establishes the inherent difference in social position between those living at the front and the tail. Necropolitics is established where the rich dictate how the lives of the poor should be lived. While those living at the front are associated with a hat, an accessory often associated with authority and power, the underprivileged are associated with a shoe, symbolising subjugation and struggle. The hindrance of social mobility is also highlighted in this short statement, with the use of repetitive aphorisms acting as a warning and reminder for the underprivileged to conform to the status quo. With a flamboyant fur coat draped behind her back, this entire scene reinforces the lavish and excessive lifestyle often associated with the wealthy and also reflects their selfish, condescending personality.
In Train to Busan, the rich, as represented by Yong-Suk’s character, are portrayed in a similar light—selfish, egoistical, and exploitative. In the early stages of the movie, similar to Minister Mason, Yong-Suk leverages his senior position in society to coerce his subordinates to bow to his demands. In doing so, he demonstrates an abuse of power and position. The subordinates, by abiding by his demands, represent the power imbalance between the lower and upper classes of society. Such traits are also explored toward the end of the movie. As the zombies seize control of the train, many passengers struggle to survive and decide to sacrifice themselves in a bid to save their friends and loved ones. Yong-Suk instead decides to sabotage others by pushing them to their deaths to ensure his own survival, as seen when the train conductor decides to help a fallen Yong-Suk up, only for Yong-Suk to thrust the conductor into the hands of the zombie, sacrificing him in the process. In these pivotal scenes, this concept of necropolitics is also employed when Yong-Suk is given a higher chance to live simply because of his status in society.
However, although the manner in which the wealthy are depicted in both films is similar, both films are at loggerheads with regard to the power dynamics in the post-apocalyptic world. In Snowpiercer, power lies in the hands of the rich, as the responsibility to govern falls on them. In Sociological Perspective – Man in Society when talking about social stratification, renowned sociologist Peter Berger (1963) mentions that ‘In our society, wealth often leads to political power’ (p. 79). This is regularly emphasised and depicted in the film, with Minister Mason famously saying, ‘Precisely 74% of you will die’, referring to the brutal methods that Wilson Industries employs to keep its population figures in check by murdering the poor. Setting in place a governing structure is important, as Berger (1963) states, ‘No society can exist without social control. Even a small group of people meeting occasionally will have to develop their mechanisms of control if the group is not to dissolve in a very short time’ (p. 68). In fact, it can be argued that the reason why the post-apocalyptic train is able to operate with such efficiency is because of the structures put in place that allow the almighty engine to run continuously.
In Train to Busan, however, every passenger demonstrates personal agency in fighting for their own survival. Although Yong-Suk, the rich businessman, does occasionally order his subordinates around, ultimately, every individual is looking out for themselves and their loved ones. This is depicted multiple times in the movie, across all age groups. The schoolchildren look out for one another, the husband sacrifices himself for his pregnant wife and the elder sister decides to end her life by allowing her zombified sister into the train carriage. All pre-existing social structures fade away as passengers have to rely on their survival skills and intrinsic abilities to escape while dealing with the emotions of losing their loved ones.
Another key difference in both films is the allegory and interpretation of the train itself. On the surface, both movies are similar as they depict the lives of people onboard locomotives. However, a deeper analysis allows us to understand the difference in interpretation and what it signifies.
In Snowpiercer, the train acts as an allegory for our present-day capitalistic society. With the rich and poor separated into two sections of the train, it highlights the disparity in the way we live despite being on the same planet and also exposes the ugly truths that many of us do not wish to confront, such as the issues of exploitation and child labour. The series of security gates that forms an impenetrable fortress for those living at the front, reinforces the social structure that is present and the lack of social mobility. The absence of the middle class onboard the train mirrors Karl Marx’s theory of class, where society is only divided into two classes: the bourgeoisie, who control the means of production in a capitalist society, applicable here as the wealthy in charge of running the train; the proletariat, members of the working class that are exploited by the rich (Blakeley, 2021). This is revealed towards the tail end of the movie, as Curtis discovers that the train’s almighty and glorified engine can only be operated by young children that the rich abduct from the rear carriages.
In Train to Busan, however, the train functions as a platform where passengers from different social classes and walks of life are united in their confinement within a small space, facilitating deeper and closer interactions amongst one another that would not have taken place outside the train. This is especially apparent as the apocalypse unfolds on the outside world and passengers move freely across different sections of the train, regardless of whether they bought a First or Economy class ticket. Such behaviour can be explained by the innate need of human beings to establish social connections. Stressful situations often lead to cooperative behaviour as it exposes the sense of vulnerability and loss of control in humans (Seppala, 2012). This is cognisant in the film, when Sang Hwa, a middle-class passenger decides to set aside his grievances with protagonist Seok-Woo, a successful fund manager, and decides to save him and his daughter from being attacked.
That said, although both films offer two different perspectives on how apocalypses influence power dynamics within the rich and the underprivileged classes, they ultimately argue that the maintenance of divisive social structures in a post-apocalyptic world will only bring more harm than good in the long run, with many unnecessary sacrifices in the process. Both films thus also posit the need for a harsh reset to our current societal norms. In Snowpiercer, it can be argued that the decision Curtis makes to set off the explosives and abandon the opportunity of taking over the train precisely mimics the harsh sacrifice that society has to make to abandon our class system. In Train to Busan, the movie itself serves as an imaginative canvas for a new social order. As stated in Helen Ho’s ‘The Model Minority in the Zombie Apocalypse: Asian-American Manhood on AMC’s The Walking Dead’ (2016):
Zombie narratives … offer a unique lens through which to investigate our current social structures and relations … viewers are given the opportunity to watch survivors on screen who test, challenge, or dismantle those frameworks as they establish a new social order.(as cited in Austin, 2020, p. 10)
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