Train to Busan (2016) features a dystopian world in South Korea that is engulfed by a viral outbreak that transforms sane human beings into mindless bloodthirsty zombies. A sudden turn of events occurs when an infected individual gets on a public train which puts everyone on-board in a perilous position. The film then narrates the actions taken by the community of survivors to safeguard themselves and their loved ones against the apocalyptic conditions presented on the public train.
A prominent aspect of the film is its depiction of the group of survivors. As in many apocalyptic films, survivors are portrayed as frenzied individuals who tend to overreact over minor issues. After they escape from the infected military personnel in Daejeon station, a small group is left stranded in the middle train cabin while the majority has regrouped in the frontmost train cabin. This prompts a mission which is undertaken by the protagonist, Seok-woo and two other survivors to rescue the stranded group of survivors. Despite a successful rescue mission, the majority of the survivors behave in an overly-exaggerated, frantic manner and persist their stance of not allowing the stranded group of survivors to rejoin them.
However, there are two memorable characters in the film that exhibit unique behaviours which are not reflected in the other lackluster characters. In-gil, an elderly woman, is portrayed as an individual who does not display the common characteristics like the others as described above. Instead, she experiences suicidal thoughts which eventually leads to her ending her life prematurely in one scene. Additionally, Yon-suk, the antagonist of the film and also a wealthy chief operating officer, adopts a condescending attitude towards the other passengers in the pre-apocalyptic world. Subsequently in the post-apocalyptic world, he is notorious for his display of hostility towards other survivors.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, severe anxiety and an unjustifiable decline of interest in socializing are crucial signs in determining a deterioration in mental well-being of individuals (Parekh, 2015). Moreover, suicidal ideation and display of hostility towards others are instances of extreme behaviour that strongly indicate a deterioration in mental well-being (Parekh, 2015). This suggests that majority of the characters in Train to Busan experience a weakening mental well-being, with In-gil and Yon-suk portraying more compelling signs of a deteriorating mental well-being.
The likely deterioration in mental well-being of the individuals as characterized by the film might lead us to question: What can spur the deterioration in mental well-being of the characters in a post-apocalyptic world? The characters experience a radical change from their familiar way of life to a life filled with danger and uncertainties. Initially, the survivors share a common goal; that is to reach Daejeon station and regroup with the military. However, upon discovering that the apparent ‘military aid’ is non-existent, this common goal is shattered as a result. A close encounter with death and the lack of a future goal in mind result in the magnification of uncertainties and fear for the future which lead to the survivors being pessimistic.
As such, it is paramount for us to examine how pessimism can influence the weakening of individuals’ mental well-being. I posit that the film is trying to convey the message that having a pessimistic outlook towards the future serves as a driving force in the deterioration in mental well-being of characters in Train to Busan.
A research journal by Conversano et al. is used as a main framework to better understand how pessimism can lead to a deteriorating mental well-being of characters in this film. The authors discussed the various negative repercussions that can be brought about by pessimism such as the tendencies to unduly focus on negative aspects and also the reluctance to rely on methods to cope with stress (Conversano et al., 2010). Using these overshadowing concepts which will be further built upon later in the essay, we can justify how pessimism plays a pivotal role in the deterioration of mental well-being of the characters.
Amplification of negative feelings
Having a pessimistic view of the future of humanity can serve to amplify the magnitude of negative feelings experienced by the characters in the film which leads to suicidal ideation. As mentioned previously, despite escaping from the ordeal unscathed, the community of survivors prohibits the stranded group of survivors from entering the cabin despite being fully aware of the fact that the zombies are about to overwhelm them. As the circumstances are dire, the stranded group of survivors has no choice but to forcefully barge in, which they manage to succeed in doing. However, despite successfully forcing their way in, In-gil is unwilling to follow the other survivors into the safe haven and opts for suicide. Her ever-nervous look illustrates her fear of the uncertainties that the future beholds. Additionally, a brief glimpse at her facial expression and her watery eyes further highlights her pessimism towards the future.
An intriguing research article by Hecht can help us shed light onto the issue of how pessimism can lead to an amplification of negative feelings. The article states that pessimists are more likely to overly emphasize on the unfavourable aspects and dismiss the favourable aspects of a scenario (Hecht, 2013). In essence, there is a ‘greater attentional bias’ towards negative feelings as compared to positive feelings in the mind of a pessimist (Hecht, 2013).
Prima facie, it is difficult to comprehend the actions of In-gil as she chooses to commit suicide despite having the opportunity to reunite with her sister in the cabin. However, we can utilize the research article by Hecht to better justify the actions of In-gil. Seeing how selfish and self-centred the other survivors are when they readily decide to sacrifice the lives of others to protect themselves, In-gil harbours this sense of disappointment towards the community of survivors in general. She probably feels that during such times of great adversity, it is crucial for survivors to be unified as one to combat the crisis. However, instead of mutual cooperation, the opposite happens; the two groups of survivors turning against each other instead on focusing on the actual adversity itself. This negative feeling towards the other survivors is further amplified by In-gil’s pessimistic outlook towards the future. It is probable that In-gil places a disproportionate amount of emphasis on her disappointment in the community and hence concludes that humanity is doomed to survive the apocalypse. Thus, a suicidal ideation stems out from such a ludicrous thought which strongly suggests a deteriorating mental well-being of In-gil.
Increased level of stress
Having a pessimistic view of the future of Humanity can result in a heightened level of stress due to the reluctance of employing stress-management methods which leads to an increased level of hostility towards other survivors. In order to better illustrate this point, we will first provide further justification of Yon-suk’s pessimism, then subsequently show how pessimism can lead to hostility towards other survivors and finally draw a link towards Yon-suk’s deteriorating mental well-being.
A notable scene that takes place slightly before the viral infection consumes Yon-suk’s agency aids in our understanding towards his pessimistic outlook. Oblivious to the fact that he is infected by the virus, Yon-suk pleads Seok-woo to help him reunite with his mother. We can further examine the finer details of this scene by studying the techniques adopted by the film. The camera focusing on Yon-suk’s teary eyes, helps us to visualize his fears that his mother has already been killed in the apocalypse. Additionally, his shaky voice during his interaction with Seok-woo further illustrates this fear. As such, this constant worry that he will not be able to reunite with his mother further accentuates Yon-suk’s pessimistic outlook towards the future. Hence, it is highly probable that Yon-suk adopts a pessimistic outlook throughout the course of the apocalypse due to the manifestation of this fear since the beginning of the apocalypse as he visualizes the extent of destruction that comes along with the apocalypse.
Referring back to the research journal by Conversano et al., it states that there is a direct relationship between optimism and an individual’s tendency to adopt ‘coping strategies’. ‘Coping strategies’ refers to avenues constructed by individuals with the aim of alleviating stress (Conversano et al., 2010). On the other end of the spectrum, a pessimistic mindset will lead to individuals shunning away from these ‘coping strategies’ (Conversano et al., 2010).
We can use the research journal to draw a parallel to Yon-suk’s behavior; to infer and explain the reasons that motivate his hostility throughout the course of the apocalypse. Hence, Yon-suk’s pessimism leads to his reluctance in turning to avenues such as social support from other survivors, to manage stress. As the post-apocalyptic world is characterized by danger and uncertainty, it is likely that Yon-suk experiences a great deal of stress in his attempt to survive the apocalypse.
Even though it may be intuitive that stress can lead to hostility, a research article by Adelson can aid us in understanding this issue at a deeper level by shedding light on the underlying mechanism behind the interaction between stress and hostility. With the use of scientific evidence, it states that stress will result in a release of a certain hormone in individuals that tend to promote hostile behaviour (Adelson, 2004).
Yon-suk first demonstrates his hostility towards the survivors when he shoves the train attendant into a zombie to create a distraction for him to escape. Later in the film, Yon-suk continues to allow his festering hostility towards the other survivors to grow and pull the train conductor to the ground when he is trying to help Yon-suk escape the horde of zombies. Needless to say, the train conductor is subsequently mauled by the zombies. The manifestation of hostility towards the other survivors thus indicates a deterioration in mental well-being of Yon-suk.
Pessimistic assumption is invalid for Seok-woo
Detractors may argue that there are instances that portray otherwise; pessimism can actually lead to an improved mental well-being of individuals. Take for example, the main protagonist, Seok-woo is illustrated to be a self-centered man at the start, constantly advocating the mindset of putting the safety of oneself in front of others to his daughter. However, as the film slowly unfolds, Seok-woo is gradually portrayed to be a selfless man who even risks his life at times to protect others. At the last scene of the film, Seok-woo even dauntlessly fights off the infected antagonist to protect his daughter and another complete stranger. As such, contradictory to an increased hostility towards others which suggests a deteriorating mental well-being, Seok-woo’s selflessness seems to hint at an improvement in mental well-being.
However, this argument is based on the assumption that Seok-woo is actually pessimistic about the future. We should question and cast doubts on this assumption due to the fact that Seok-woo is constantly receiving updates from his co-worker on how and where to proceed next. As mentioned previously, the other survivors in the community adopt a pessimistic outlook towards the future as they do not have any goals to work towards and they perceive the future to be bleak and filled with uncertainties. However, the possibility that Seok-woo is instead, not pessimistic about the future exists as he is focused on attaining the goals set out by him after receiving insider tips from his co-worker. As Seok-woo knows that there is a safe haven out there for him and his daughter, it is highly probable that instead of adopting a pessimistic outlook towards the future, Seok-woo is actually optimistic. By proving the flaws that exist within the assumption itself, the argument made by detractors is thus rendered invalid.
In conclusion, having a pessimistic foresight of what is to come for humanity indeed harms the mental well-being of individuals by amplifying negative feelings and causing them to face an increased level of stress due to the reluctance of employing stress-management methods. It is intriguing to comprehend how the fundamental impacts of pessimism are able to relate to a worsen state of mental well-being. After studying the ramifications of pessimism experienced by the characters in Train to Busan, we can draw a parallel from the film to achieve a better understanding of pessimism in real-world context. Although it is crucial for one to manage one’s pessimistic thoughts, it is easier said than done. Perhaps given the example of Seok-woo above, one can attempt to turn to other individuals for moral support and set small, yet manageable goals to ease pessimistic thoughts.
Adelson, R. (n.d.). Hormones, stress and aggression – a vicious cycle. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov04/hormones.aspx
Conversano, C., Rotondo, A., Lensi, E., Vista, O. D., Arpone, F., & Reda, M. A. (2010). Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 1(1), 25-29. doi:10.2174/17450179010060100025
Hecht, D. (2013). The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism. Experimental Neurobiology, 22(3), 173. doi:10.5607/en.2013.22.3.173
Parekh, R. (n.d.). Warning Signs of Mental Illness. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/warning-signs-of-mental-illness
Yeon (Director), & Lee (Producer). (2016). Train to Busan [Next Entertainment World]. South Korea: RedPeter Film