Train to Busan: a Protagonist’s Guide to Surviving Himself and Others Like Him

What’s your favorite Korean Drama?

Guilty pleasures I’ve enjoyed pretty much all the way through (for educational purposes of course):

Secret Garden

Boys Over Flowers

City Hunter

Dr. Jin

Fated to Love You

Descendants of the Sun

Now, Korean films, I mean pretty much every one I’ve watched has been rock solid.

But today we’re taking a peek at Train to Busan (yay I was born there!), just in time for Halloween maybe?

I’d say it’s one of the best films of the zombie genre out there right now.

“While a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea, passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.” -IMDB

***Spoiler Alert***

A virus.

It breaks out.

Passengers do anything they can to survive.

From Seoul to Busan.

This story is a gold mine for psychology, theology, and adoption.

For now, here’s what stuck out to me. 4 main battles our protagonist needs to survive on his way from Seoul and Busan. My hope is they’d inspire you and me to locate ourselves in our own narratives, making sense of our present day, here-and-now experiences, internally and externally.

4 Battles We Need to Survive 

1) Battle of Psychology

Train to Busan (TTB)  happens to follow one of the most engaging story models: Rebirth. The character realizes their error before it’s too late. Classic.

TTB is also an Overcoming the Monster story, perhaps even a Quest.

Seok Woo is, on the inside, what the zombies are on the outside. Infected with the virus of “self.”

Self preserving. Self-inflating. Self exalting. Self-centering.

An inner desire to be fulfilled, using everything and anything in the environment, including other humans, to make it happen.

This all resonates with Eric Erikson’s model for psychosocial development.

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 10.47.52 PM.png

Basically, Erikson believed our interaction with the environment was critical to development. We resolve (or fail to resolve) a crisis in each stage. We are more likely to struggle later in life if we fail to resolve any of these.

We meet our main character, Seok Woo, arguing with his ex-wife about when he needs to take their daughter, Soo-an, from Seoul to Busan for her birthday.

Seok Suit.jpg
pc: Severed Cinema

Seok Woo is almost a narcissist by DSM-5 criteria. All we really need to know is he cares about himself and barely has a cinder of genuine thought for anyone else, let alone his daughter.

“Dad, you only care about yourself. That’s why mommy left.” 

They get on the train to meet mom in Busan. Zombie virus breaks out in the cities. They’re trapped on the train because all the stops along the way have been quarantined. They won’t let anyone off the train. One infected person managed to board in Seoul and is now infecting people one by one.

We gotta catch this! This is a 90 minute story about Seok Woo going from Stage 1 to Stage 7. From Seoul. To Busan. Yes. Yes. Yes. With special attention to love, care, and wisdom (stages 6, 7, and 8).

Some questions for us:

Where are you in Erikson’s model? How do we get from one stage to the next? How does our culture value/marginalize people who are in one stage vs another, or those who’ve failed or succeeded at resolving their crisis?

Seok Woo seems to resolve his final crisis. But, only after he gets infected by the virus.



pc: YouTube

How does he put it into practice?

He jumps off the train to his death in order to save the others from being infected by his unfortunate external physical condition. So he did succeed in the final stage, it took the zombie virus invading his mind and heart to get him there.

You can imagine the grist this story has for spiritual allegory!

I found it interesting there’s another person from a rebirth story who kinda looks at life in stages.

Anyway, that psychological battle. From one degree of virtue to the next.

2. Battle of Perspective

Seok Woo’s perspective doesn’t necessarily transform. He does.

But yes as he changes, so the way he sees the world also changes as he goes from Seoul to Busan.

Fight Train .jpg
pc: Electric Shadows

Let’s check out the trans-theoretical model for change (Norcross, Krebs, and Prochaska, 2011). I think they’d have something to say about it.

Pre-contemplation: unaware there’s a problem. Although family members (e.g., Soo-an), friends, neighbors or employees are quite aware.

Contemplation: thinking about changing, no commitment. Seok Woo experiences this when he starts fighting off zombies with several other “friends” on the train.

Preparation: baby steps. No real effective change, small reduction in problem behaviors. Seok Woo demonstrates this especially when he starts doing things like moving toward the big group of zombies in order to help his friend fight them off.

Action: requires considerable time and energy. Behavior, environment, and/or experiences are modified to overcome problems.

Maintenance: working to prevent relapse. Relapse happens and is part of the change process actually. In the classic rebirth model, Seok Woo realized how selfish he is and sacrifices his life for his daughter and others. Would Seok Woo relapse back into a narcissistic jerk dad had all the zombies been irradiated and he remained alive? Sure. I would too. But the significant breakthrough has already happened and the “relapse” would likely propel him back to action stage.

These are all a matter of perspective. In your own struggles, how much do you see your need to change?

In what ways would you see your environment, behavior, and experiences as assets toward overcoming a “monster” rather than barriers to overcome? What are the gains you see from maintaining change, and what steps can you take to see the positives rather than the negatives?

Change is generally interwoven with perspective. One might happen because of the other.

3) Battle of Purpose

I’m gonna zoom in a bit on the adoption narrative.

What an incredible final scene with Seong-kyeong (pregnant wife of another character who died from the infection) and Soo-an, who’s now an orphan after her father died.

pc: ROZZ –

They walk through a dark tunnel and appear on the other side, in a safe non-infected zone protected by military guards. The soldiers at first think they’re zombies and are posed to kill, in fact they’re given directives from over the radio to shoot. But they wait, and realize they’re survivors, they rush to help and support.

Whatever your purpose in life, may it always include supporting widows and orphans in some way.

And this can get complicated.

Some adoptees have asked me, “Why do mothers give their children away?” And why do people adopt them?

These are super deep questions. With many opposing facts, views, opinions and attitudes to answer them.

There are many gifted and genuine folks out there who could speak to that dialogue far better than I could. Like here, here, here, and here. It’s not a rigid binary black and white stance, either. There are so many subtle nuances to hear about, affirm, and learn from.

I affirm the idea that physical adoption pictures something larger.

But I also acknowledge stories like Soo-an’s… in order for physical adoption to happen, loss must also happen in one form or another, for multiple people involved. Perhaps for everyone involved.

Adoption many times emerges in connection to some tragic social disparity, even injustice.

Mothers relinquish their children for many different reasons. And people adopt those children for many different reasons.

I believe those are two important issues. The zombie virus was an important issue, too, and seemed to be left unresolved in the film.

There’s another stunning process happening, though, independent of those major questions.

Yes, there are Macrosystem problems to address. And these two vulnerable characters, Seong-kyeong and Soo-an, still need here-and-now support, right now, face to face, in real-time, individual and Micro-system care.

That’s where I’m generally operating right now in this season at Therapy Redeemed.

Think of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model. Every layer has its need for advocates.

ecosystem bronfren.jpg
pc: Rachelle Tannenbaum


For each individual, then, I’m convinced we find ourselves in some ways back at Stage 1 of Erikson’s model, trust vs. mistrust. It’s a crisis of hope. In Stage 1 infants get a good understanding of their caregivers, they’re confident about “who’s taking care of me?” 

Circle of Security and Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control come to mind but there are a handful of other solid trauma-informed resources out there.

Even though and even when there is so much pain associated with adoption, one main purpose in post-adoption services is to help adoptees form new safe attachments. That’s a big part of our job.

This is happening at all ages and can happen in all places. But there are certain relationship atmospheres where it happens deeper, more effectively and longer-lasting than others. It can start with caregivers expressing, “Yes, I’m here with you, and I’m going to go through this scary thing with you no matter what.” Expressing this in some way, shape, or form, with words and body, a thousand times a day if needed, for many years and decades if needed.

Battle of purpose. We’re supporting widows and orphans.

4) Battle of Hope

As I mentioned above, I appreciate those who’ve given their time and resources to uncover and explore the different layers of adoption.

I would say my job is complementary; I’m really in the business of hope.

This does not mean I minimize, discount, dismiss, invalidate or simply don’t care that there are gross experiences of tragedy and darkness associated with the way adoption happens in the world.

I’m aiming past rainbows and butterflies kinds of rhetoric. And yet… because I acknowledge the severity of what some adoptees face, and the systematic shortcomings, it would be hard to convince me to stay stuck in a place of fear and hopelessness and not search for a way out, a way through, a way back, a deeper truth and a better life.

I’m so inspired by the those who are navigating their personal struggles with humility and hope at the same time.

Try Rotter’s Locus of Control scale and see whether yours is internal or external. You might feel that most of the events in your life are under your control, or that there are mostly forces outside of your control that determine the outcome of the events in your life.

Hope is generally related to folks with an internal locus of control. I would pair this with the idea of autonomy, agency, freedom and responsibility, and choice.

It might feel like a thousand miles and a million blood-sucking zombies in between your “Seoul and Busan.” From one stage to the next. From old perspectives to new perspectives. From confusion to clarity. Principle to practice.

In a battle of hope, much hinges on which direction you’re facing and who you’re hoping in, what you’re going after in this lifetime and whether you take responsibility for the outcomes in your life. One of the most clinically significant factors in therapeutic change is “instillation of hope.” It helps us choose to avoid and pursue the right things.

Train to Busan.jpg
pc: Rojak Daily

Seconds before he plunges to his death, Seok Woo in a half-zombie state of mind daydreams of his daughter, newly born. Her laugh. Her presence. The unseen possibilities. Her value to him.

He smiles. He gladly dies so that she would live. So that many others would be saved as well.

In the beginning of the story Seok Woo is a cutthroat business man. Here, though, he’s finally infected with one of the greatest infections a narcissist could ever have.

Freedom from self.

Concern for the welfare of others. Agony over whether fellow travelers survive. A yearning to remove his own depravity from the equation. A desire for something beyond his own local inner desires for fulfillment.

He finally took responsibility for the stuff that counts. This dude went from self-preservation at the cost of many others to self sacrifice to save many others.

That’s the battle of hope. I believe it’s been won for us positionally. And it can be won practically and progressively, with resources available to you present day, here and now in your deepest struggle this very hour.

4 Battles We Need to Survive

Battle of Psychology: Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

Battle of Perspective: Prochaska’s Stages of Change

Battle of Adoption: Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model

Battle of Hope: Rotter’s Locus of Control

Seok Woo physically dies at the end of this story. But he ultimately realized his error before it was too late. Perhaps the most spiritually and emotionally alive he’s ever been. And that’s the major win during Rebirth.

My hope is you and I continue on with courage and curiosity in our own narratives, making sense of our present day, here-and-now experiences, internally and externally.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! How do those models fit onto your life right now? Where are you located in these narratives? What kinds of ideas came up for you as you were watching TTB? Which “battle” was most helpful for you to think about?

Connect at my facebook page and send messages at Plus follow @therapyredeemed on Instagram for more content related to adoption, theology and psychology! ❤

featured pc:

Norcross, J. C., Krebs, P. M., & Prochaska, J. O. (2011). Stages of change. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(2), 143–154.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close