SPECIAL ISSUE | ’I Feel Like I Became a Zombie’: COVID-19, Zombies and English Paratextual/Paramedia Responses to South Korean Music and Film (Part 2)
Author: Dr. Karin Beeler University of Northern British Columbia
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TRAIN TO BUSAN AND PENINSULA
In addition to paratextual English comments that juxtapose the Korean zombie content with pandemic reality, there are also critical responses in English that have framed Korean films like Train to Busan and Peninsula. Train to Busan 2: Peninsula was actually released in Korea during COVID restrictions, as theatres were open in July 2020, when COVID cases in South Korea were quite low (Brzeski 2020). Director Yeon Sang-ho made the following comment:
‘I feel that we were lucky to have been able to release it at a meaningful moment. Obviously, it was never part of my intention—I developed the film long before COVID-19—but due to how events have unfolded, I think the movie’s topic and the overall story has become quite relatable. If you look for the message that the film is delivering, it’s about how we as human beings can invent hope in times of isolation and desperation. The central theme I wanted to convey was that we have to move towards hope, no matter the circumstances.’ (Brzeski 2020)
Here, a zombie apocalypse film and the COVID pandemic are linked through a translated message of hope, despite the inevitable deaths in zombie films and as the grim outcome of some coronavirus cases.
Most of the “zombies” in Train to Busan and Peninusla are of the traditional monstrous variety, and therefore suggest contagion or disease in a more horrific way than the zombified office worker character or the tired-looking band members in the Day6 MV, who appear to be suffering from depression or exhaustion. Nevertheless, even Train to Busan makes use of the fantastic zombie to engage with socially relevant images like the familiar idea of the tired white-collar worker or the greedy corporate executive. Unlike Peninsula, the release of Train to Busan preceded COVID outbreaks in South Korea; however, an English-language podcast review of Train to Busan draws parallels between the film and the pandemic. “’Train to Busan’ with Eric Nam, Eddie Nam, and Brian Nam” is part of the video podcast series “Commit or Quit” which the Korean-American singer Eric Nam hosts with his brothers. The series reviews films and television shows. Eric Nam was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and has made Korean K-pop/K-rock, K-dramas and film more accessible to English-speaking audiences by hosting various podcasts or programs through his platform Dive Studios. The podcast review of Train to Busan is an example of a paramedia response to the film that engages with the “fantastic” aspects of the film while reinforcing parallels to the “real” world or “the present day.” His podcast facilitates international paratextual discussion (viewers can comment below the video podcast) and the kind of cross-cultural engagement with pandemic culture that Day6’s “Zombie” music videos also generate. For example, comments suggest a parallel between a zombie infection and the COVID pandemic when podcast viewers mention how some Americans take off their masks in a store and “breath[e] down each other’s necks” (Dr Clump 2020 “‘Train to Busan’ with Eric Nam”) or “cough . . . while touching . . . item[s] around them” (min suga 2020; “‘Train to Busan’ with Eric Nam”). Different national contexts and approaches to COVID are also addressed by the Nam brothers. For example, Eddie Nam mentions that South Korea has recognized that “masks prevent the spread of COVID” (“‘Train to Busan’ with Eric Nam” 26:42-26:44) whereas he is in Georgia (United States) where people think “it’s a game (26.48) . . . people are like ‘I don’t see it therefore I don’t believe it”(40:32-40:33).
Eric Nam also makes the following observation: “if everyone were to watch this movie and say . . . the zombie virus can spread so quickly, now just replace that with COVID, maybe that would . . . allow people to understand how fast viruses can spread. It still blows my mind that people don’t think that it’s spreading or that it’s real” (39:24- 39:39). Of course, in the case of the zombie virus in Train to Busan, the transformation from human to zombie only takes a matter of minutes compared to the more gradual onset of serious COVID symptoms in real cases. This is an interesting distinction, because Johan Högland also mentions how zombie films like Train to Busan accelerate the state of viral transmission:
The point of pandemic horror cinema in general, and of the zombie film in particular, is that it makes a different understanding of the pandemic possible. With the aid of the horror genre, the pandemic is sped up and magnified so that its destructive capabilities become starkly visible. The slow violence of the viral pandemic here becomes hyper fast as undead carriers of zombie contagion run or stumble through chaotic streets in search of the still uninfected. (Högland 2017, 2)
What the rapid zombie virus and the COVID-19 virus have in common is their link to the concept of denial. For example, Nicole Bogart has reported that some North American patients continue to deny the reality of COVID-19, even as they die from the disease” (Bogart 2020). This disbelief is similar to the senior executive character in Train to Busan, who cannot accept that he has been infected, saying: “I can’t be! No!” (1:42:12-1:42:22). Yong-suk, the COO, insists on the separation between the unfamiliar zombie and his own sense of self, or what he has constructed as a familiar or non-zombie identity. Even as he is transforming into a zombie, he denies that he can become one. In a similar way, some COVID anti-maskers and deniers have psychologically separated themselves from others who are sick instead of accepting the possibility that they could easily join the ranks of the infected. The Nam brothers’ paramedia comments about COVID denial highlight the connection between Yong-suk’s reaction in Train to Busan and the anti-mask demonstrations in real-life situations.
As the previous example illustrates, the separation between the categories of zombie and non-zombie becomes blurred in Train to Busan. Interestingly enough, this blurring of boundaries also applies to the line between primary text and secondary text when we try to define the Nam brothers’ podcast. While the podcast is ostensibly a review of Train to Busan, it loses its original focus as a critical evaluation of Train to Busan, and moves into the domain of video memoir. The conversation between the Nam brothers shifts from a film review of Train to Busan to a highly personal narrative that addresses family and social circumstances during the COVID pandemic. In other words, what initially appears to be an example of paramedia becomes its own narrative. For example, Eric asks his brother Eddie whether he needs to bring “mom and dad out to Korea” (44:01-44:08) to make them feel more comfortable, presumably because Seoul, South Korea presents a lower COVID risk than Atlanta, Georgia; however, Eddie counters with a description of their father’s abundant vegetable garden and says that their parents are “working from home” (46:07) and that their “quality of life is pretty high” (46:08-46:09), thus reinforcing how people are adapting to life in the midst of a pandemic.
Like paratextual comments and paramedia reaction video responses to the Day6 “Zombie” videos, the interaction between the Nam brothers in the Train to Busan podcast concretizes the link between the expression of the “unfamiliar” zombie in a work of art and discussions of familiar real-life COVID pandemic situations. There are, of course, some differences in the artistic construction of the zombies in the Day6 videos and in Train to Busan. The more realistic zombie portrayed in the Korean MV for “Zombie” and the two-dimensional, abstract zombie in the English-language lyric video contrast markedly with the virulent, killer zombies in Train to Busan. However, in all of these artistic works and in the paratextual discourse around them, the zombie is still connected to the psychological state and practices of human beings, whether they are artists in the K-pop industry, greedy executives, exhausted individuals in a workplace setting, or fellow artists and fans experiencing the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. What remains clear is that the dividing line between zombie and non-zombie becomes increasingly difficult to discern in these works of art, and those who respond to these representations of the strange or unfamiliar are still able to see parallels to their own real-life situations.
This essay has examined how the concept of the zombie as presented in the Nam brothers’ podcast about Train to Busan and Day6’s “Zombie” videos has enabled English-language paratextual and paramedia reflections (by fans, viewers and other artists) on the state of COVID-19 around the world. The “zombie” in the Day6 song may be viewed as a metaphor for a meaningless existence. As the music video suggests, the concept of a “meaningless life” can be the result of an unrelenting work schedule that causes mental and physical fatigue. The song resonates even more for fans of the band (known as Mydays) who are aware that Day6 was unable to perform the song because two members took a break for mental health reasons. As Korean-American performer Eric Nam and Day6 member Jae-hyung Park have shared, the pace of a K-pop/K-rock performer or singer is mentally and physically exhausting (Park, Juwon 2021; Saeji et al. 2018); therefore the song by Day6 (which Eric Nam also covered in September 2020) may be seen as a sign of the times in South Korean society. K-pop artists are becoming more critical of the mental health risks to artists, but even with this increased awareness that in part stems from the suicides of artists like Jonghyun, Sulli and Goo Hara, schedules are still grueling as they perform constant musical “comebacks.” “Schedules are unrelenting, with small and large performances, and other media appearances in between, making them physically difficult to sustain” (Saeji et al. 2018, 12).
The fact that the release of the song “Zombie” and the release of the sequel to Train to Busan also coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic has not only resonated with South Korean artists and fans, but also with international artists and audiences who have experienced what it is like to live under unpredictable circumstances as a disease takes its toll on global populations. Korean-American and international audiences have thus seized upon the various representations of the zombie in the videos and film in order to make sense of their lives in their own national or personal contexts. The zombie is therefore a figure that cuts both ways; it is unsettling and disruptive but also, paradoxically, serves as a way of reflecting upon cultural attitudes, mental health, work life, and family. The words of one Canadian resident sum up the “unreal” experiences of many people during the pandemic: “I feel like I’m just going through the motions. . . It’s like time is going by but my world is standing still. . . I’m starting to feel like this is never going to end” (Ryann Waymouth quoted in Somos, 2021). Fortunately, with the rollout of multiple COVID vaccines around the world, there is new hope that fewer people will feel like zombies just “waitin’ for the day to pass by” (Day6, “’Zombie (English Ver.)’ Lyric Video” 2020, 1:10-1:13).
 An abridged version of the complete episode is called “‘Train to Busan’ and Parallels to the Present Day,” thus highlighting how the Nam brothers use Train to Busan as a point of departure for discussing a contemporary issue such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
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SUGGESTED CITATION: Beeler, Karin. 2021. “’I Feel Like I Became a Zombie’: COVID-19, Zombies and English Paratextual/Paramedia Responses to South Korean Music and Film..” PopMeC Research Blog. Published June 29.
Karin Beeler is Professor and Chair of the English Department at the University of Northern British Columbia (Canada) where she teaches television studies and film studies courses. She has published a chapter on “Hunting for the Branded Body in Supernatural: Tattoos, the Mark of Cain and Fan Culture” in Tattoos in Crime and Detective Narratives: Marking and Re-marking Eds. Katharine Cox and Kate Watson. Other publications include Children’s Film in the Digital Age and Investigating Charmed (both co-edited with Stan Beeler), articles or chapters on youth and screen culture, and her books Tattoos, Desire and Violence: Marks of Resistance in Literature, Film and Television and Seers, Witches and Psychics on Screen. Karin.Beeler@unbc.ca