Yeon Sang-ho: Zombie films reflect reality
The Train to Busan director, speaks about the film’s sequel, Peninsula, and the parallels between his fictional world to our real one that is ravaged by a pandemic
From the early 2000s, zombie-apocalypse films and shows have been on a steady rise. We have seen them in various sizes and shapes, and in 2016, filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan took the audience on a wild train ride that received international acclaim. A zombie-virus outbreak inside a superfast train? Of course, it’s a catchy idea, but Sang-ho believes that plenty of other reasons resulted in the film’s global reception. “It dealt with universal elements like family love, human selfishness during a crisis, and so on. Audiences relate to such real themes.”
Four years later, the director is now prepping for the release of the standalone sequel, Peninsula. The very news of a sequel came as a surprise, as the filmmaker had earlier expressed his refusal to make a sequel. Sang-ho attributes the challenging idea behind Peninsula as reason for the reversal of his decision. “When I got the idea for Peninsula, I could see that it was going to be a wholly different film from Train to Busan. I was attracted to that. As a creative person, I wanted a new challenge instead of making another film in the same vein.”
It’s curious that this sequel, planned well in advance, is now coming out during a global pandemic. In Train to Busan, Sang-ho delves into how self-centered, cruel, and reckless humans can get during such a crisis, and when asked if he is tempted to draw parallels, he says, “There are too many different types of people, and individuals change depending on circumstances. In Train to Busan, there is a wide variety of characters. I think what kind of person you end up being depends on the choices you make.”
He does agree that parallels can be drawn between the characters of his world and our pandemic-struck world. “While Peninsula is fictional, I think the characters could very much exist here. I’m of the opinion that zombie movies always reflect reality. When I’m working on my scripts, it’s something I consider to be of utmost importance” he says.
I ask what Sang-ho’s first course of action would be if such a zombie apocalypse were to happen in the real world? “As I have a family, I think I’d take care of them, first. If it’s a Train to Busan situation, I’d pull out all the stops to make sure my family stays safe. But most likely, making these kinds of decisions during a zombie pandemic would be exceedingly difficult.”
In Train to Busan, Sang-Ho managed to build a post-apocalyptic world, majorly within the walls of a train. There’s little information offered about the outside world, and yet there’s already a mental picture of what’s going on. For this, Sang-ho says that he pictured what the outside world would be like from within the train. “For example, the situation in the train’s control room, as well as what might have been happening within the government. My team and I also talked a lot about what might have happened to the other cities.”
Barring two live-action films including Train to Busan, Sang-ho’s filmography is mainly filled with animation films, and this filmmaker who graduated in Western paintings also likes to do his own storyboards. Speaking on how these passions co-exist and influence each other, Sang-ho says, “As I specialised in art, I definitely think in terms of images even when writing stories. My stories begin from a single cinematic mental image, and I try hard to implement this into the film.”
With Peninsula releasing on November 27 in Indian theatres, if you would like to prep yourself by watching some dystopian classics and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic movies, Sang-ho suggests his own favourites: The Mist (2007), Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) and John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009).