Train To Busan (2016) is a Korean apocalyptic film that follows Seok-Woo, a money-hungry, selfish and divorced businessman, who boards a train to Busan with his daughter, Soo-An, to visit his ex-wife for Soo-An’s birthday. While they are on the train, a zombie outbreak occurs and the undead begin overtaking the world. This movie follows Seok-Woo as he fights for his and Soo-An’s survival, doing everything in his power to make sure they get to Busan, the city presumed to have the best military defence against the zombies.
Seok-Woo appears selfish at first, choosing to not look out for others for fear of slowing him and Soo-An down. However, Soo-An remains a beacon of compassion and humanity in the film, undeterred by her father’s selfishness and apathy. Seok-Woo eventually experiences character development, highlighted when the film ends with Seok-Woo’s ultimate sacrifice of his life for Soo-An and Sung-Gyeong, a pregnant lady onboard the locomotive, by pushing a zombie away from them. Soo-An and Sung-Gyeong are the sole survivors among those on the train, eventually making it to Busan.
Train To Busan is significant in the way it calls attention to female agency in a zombie apocalypse, challenging its undervaluation in society. I define agency as one’s ability to make decisions and choices, and we see a consistent contrast between male and female agency throughout the film. Female agency is characterized by compassion, humanitarianism and empathy while male agency is characterized by physical strength (sometimes violence), selfishnes and leadership. The ending of Train To Busan hence subverts the expectations of who will survive a zombie apocalypse, challenging the idea of the survival of the fittest during the end times of the world. Females, who are generally deemed to be physically weaker and possess less fighting instincts, are the only ones to make it to safety in Train To Busan, the males all becoming victims of the flesh-hungry zombies. This leads us to examine the vastly different roles and importance of male and female agency in Train To Busan, and how they interact with each other to ensure the characters’ survival in the apocalypse as well as in the governance of the larger society.
Both male and female agency are important for one’s survival in the apocalyptic world of Train To Busan, as they both have their merits and unique strenghts. One should not undervalue or dismiss either form of agency because they both play a part in ensuring one’s survival in the apocalypse, albeit in their own unique ways. I will first highlight the importance of both female and male agency in Train To Busan, examining the different ways in which they play a part in ensuring the characters’ survival. I will then link these ideas to the wider society, challenging the traditional concept of patriarchy in society, and how it can be improved through accommodative patriarchy to embrace and leverage female agency to ensure a resilient yet humanitarian society.
The importance of female agency
Female agency is important as seen through the subversion of expectations of who survives the apocalypse in Train To Busan. At the end of the film, the sole survivors among the train passengers are Soo-An and Sung-Gyeong, Seok-Woo’s daughter and a pregnant lady whose husband passes during a fight with the zombies. This ending is unexpected as it subverts the expectation that males would be the ones to survive, given the prevailing gender norms present in society. Men are deemed “invulnerable, tough, strong, aggressive, powerful, commanding, in control [and] rational”, while women are deemed as “dependent, vulnerable, pliant, weak, supportive… emotional, and empathic” (Becker, 1999, p. 27). Men are seen as the ones more capable of independent survival, while women are viewed as weak and vulnerable, reliant on males to protect and hand-hold them to safety. In light of this, it is expected that males would be the ones to survive, given that their masculine traits and capabilities make them more suited for survival in a violent zombie apocalypse. This is also hinted at in the film, where Seok-Woo tells Soo-An that she has to “look out for herself” after Soo-An kindly gives up her seat for an old lady. Seok-Woo believes that survival is contingent on one’s apathy and ability to put themselves first and that Soo-An’s kindness is a weakness that will hinder her survival. This is contradictory to the values of female agency, hence making it unexpected that the women were the sole survivors among the passengers aboard the Train To Busan.
In view of this, the unexpected ending of Train To Busan brings out the importance of female agency. It brings forth that it is not only physical attributes that determine if one if deemed “fit” to survive an apocalypse, but sometimes having the right morals and values are what is most important for survival. The female agency displayed by Soo-An and Sung-Gyeong’s compassion, humanity and empathy is vastly different from the violence and selfishness embodied by the male agency in Train To Busan, and this is clearly seen when the train makes its first stop at Daejeon Station. As the passengers all leave the train, Seok-Woo separates from the rest of the crowd and brings Soo-An to the East Square instead of the Main Square, where Seok-Woo knows is safe according to the information he obtained from his own men. Instead of following silently, Soo-An cries and begs her father to tell the others as well, wanting to also bring them to safety despite Seok-Woo’s refusal for fear of wasting precious time. Despite the selfishness displayed by the male characters in the film, Soo-An remains compassionate from start to finish, always looking out for others and ensuring that other people are safe. The female agency seen in the embodiment of moral values can ultimately be what enables her and Sung-Gyeong’s survival, as the men are too far gone to their selfish natures and are unable to enter the post-apocalyptic world. The subversion of expectations of who survives the apocalypse in Train To Busan hence highlights how female agency is important in ensuring one’s survival, because of its embodiment of the values of empathy, humanity and compassion.
The importance of male agency and its relationship with female agency
Train To Busan also highlights how male agency is important as it aids in the elevation of female agency in the survival of the apocalypse. At the end of the film, Seok-Woo gets bitten by a zombie while trying to fight it off to protect Soo-An and Sung-Gyeong.
Seok-Woo’s demonstration of his agency in making the heroic choice of sacrificing himself enabled Soo-An and Sung-Gyeong to make it to safety, allowing them to survive and enter a post-apocalyptic world, bringing with them values of the female agency, like humanity and compassion.
From this demonstration of the unique partnership between male and female agency, I propose that the wider society adopts accommodative patriarchy as a guiding principle for governance. Accommodative patriarchy is where men enable women to lead alongside them in positions of power, enhancing and leveraging female agency to build a more humanitarian society, by highlighting and enabling female agency in decision-making. This society “proclaim[s] a social and political gravitas for [all women] that far exceeds conventional calculations of their worth in reproductive, entertainment, or labor terms”, while “masculinity [is preserved] as a necessary, responsible partner to governance” amidst the introduction of feminine authority (Han & Ling, 1998). This form of governance acknowledges female agency as more than submission and vulnerability, and male agency is used to complement female agency in governance by enabling their values to be displayed in society. Men demonstrate their agency by ensuring the safety of the country with their military skills and instinct, ensuring order in society through displays of dominance while still maintaining as the main governing body responsible for the country. This first ensures that society is resilient against external threats and that the masses are respectful of the governing body as a credible and reliable source of leadership, so as to enable women to demonstrate their agency by maintaining the ethical conduct of society, ensuring humanitarianism through education and demonstration of values like compassion and empathy, and creating a civil and caring society through displays of selflessness and kindness in decision-making. Without male agency, female agency cannot be embodied and a harmonious society that edifies its people and encourages a climate of humanitarianism cannot be established. Hence, Train To Busan highlights the importance of male agency as it elevates female agency in the survival of the apocalypse, and through this we see how implementation of accommodative patriarchy in society enables male agency to act as a platform for female agency to be demonstrated in positions of authority, creating a more humanitarian society overall.
Train To Busan challenges the traditional patriarchy
Train To Busan challenges the undervaluation of female agency in the traditional patriarchal society by displaying the importance of both gendered agencies. Under the patriarchal society, “hyper-masculinity is glorified and traditionally feminine qualities (such as care, caretaking, and valuing relationships) are denigrated” (Becker, 1999, p. 22). However, Train To Busan brings forth the point that both masculinity (male agency) and femininity (female agency) are important, and that society should not devalue female agency but instead “place greater value on the traditionally feminine values of care and relationships” (Becker, 1999, p. 22), characterized by the values displayed in Train To Busan.
Throughout the film, Seok-Woo is observant and able to think on his feet, coming up with solutions quickly when caught in life-threatening situations. This is seen when the group of men have to get through multiple zombie-filled train carriages to first get to a toilet cubicle to rescue their loved ones, before making their way to the carriage where the other passengers are. While fighting, Seok-Woo notices that the zombies are docile and only respond to sound when the train passes through a tunnel, as the zombies are unable to see the humans in the dark. Seok-Woo then comes up with the idea of using their phones to emit sounds when the train passes through a tunnel, luring the zombies away from them so they can pass through the train carriages safely to get to their loved ones. Seok-Woo’s quick thinking and wit demonstrate how male agency is important in ensuring one’s own survival, which also allows them to protect others when faced with physical threats.
At the start of the film, there was tension between Sung-Gyeong’s husband and Seok-Woo due to Seok-Woo closing the train doors on Sung-Gyeong and her husband, preventing them from reaching safety while the zombies were chasing after them. Despite this, Sung-Gyeong chose to show compassion towards Soo-An by giving her candy and inviting her to feel the baby’s kicks through her tummy, successfully calming Soo-An down despite the uncertain and scary situation.
Sung-Gyeong showed her resentful husband that forgiveness is possible, and showed Seok-Woo that humanity and compassion can still be embodied no matter the circumstances. Sung-Geyong’s kindness hence played a part in breaking down the walls of selfishness and anger in the men’s hearts, ultimately leading to them helping and looking out for each other throughout the rest of the film. Sung-Gyeong’s display of female agency through her humanity and compassion led to the formation of a friendship between Seok-Woo and her husband, and their collaboration as a team is what helps them effectively fight off multiple groups of zombies to survive.
In summary, Train To Busan demonstrates that both gendered agencies have their merit and unique ways of aiding in the characters’ survival, and hence challenges the traditional patriarchal views of overvaluing masculine qualities and undervaluing feminine qualities (Becker, 1999), where society valorizes male agency and underemphasizes on female agency.
Train To Busan is significant in highlighting that both male and female agencies are important for one’s survival in the apocalypse. I argued this by first examining how female agency is important through the subversion of expectations of who survives the end of the apocalypse, followed by how male agency is important as well because it helps in the elevation of female agency at the end of the film. Finally, I discussed how Train To Busan demonstrates the importance of both gendered agencies and how they contribute in their own unique ways to apocalyptic survival, before linking this to the wider society where Train To Busan teaches us not to undervalue female agency. Whether Train To Busan is a feminist film still requires more research and analysis, but what is certain is that the film acknowledges the agency of both genders and pays due respect to their positive attributes. By drawing parallels to the wider society, Train To Busan teaches us to involve female agency in positions of power, allowing women to lead alongside men because more often than not, women can bring as much to the table as men can.
Becker, M. E. (1999). Patriarchy and inequality: Towards a substantive feminism. University of Chicago Legal Forum (1), 21-88. Retrieved on May 16, 2023, from https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1999/iss1/3
Han, J. & Ling, L. H. M. (1998). Authoritarianism in the hypermasculinized state: Hybridity, patriarchy, and capitalism in Korea. International Studies Quarterly 42(1), 53–78.
Yeon, S. (Director). (2016). Train to Busan [Film]. Next Entertainment World.