The opening of Seoul Station gives a very clear indication of the film’s political leanings. As an old man staggers towards the central station with his neck bleeding, people recoil from him in disgust. As one young man who initially approaches him to help comments, the old beggar man really stinks. This idea of the stench of the not yet undead embarrassing the average citizen highlights the film’s desire to link the abandoned citizens of the South Korean state to the walking dead.
Seoul Station, the animated prequel to the mega-blockbuster Train to Busan, is director Yeon Sang-ho’s second release of year and has been doing the rounds in smaller cinemas and festivals whilst Yeon’s global hit is still touring cinemas. Seoul Station is set in the locale where you literally can catch a train to Busan and it allows the audience to gain a glimpse of the beginnings of the zombie attack and the states response to it.
The film is littered with references to previous zombie films such as military roadblocks, multiple chase sequences and deadly hospitals all told via a muted color pallet. The film’s political message – warning us not to forget about the underclass and consider our treatment of them more carefully – underlines the whole narrative. Yeon’s previous animated features The King of Pigs (2013) and The Fake (2013) took a similar approach to social commentary. The King of Pigs explored the dark side of those who are at the bottom of the middle-school experience and The Fake saw a con artist cause tragedy in a rural village. Seoul Station shares the same preoccupation of both previous film’s via a vision of a highly hierarchical South Korean state that cares little for those who don’t meet the high standards of wealth, education or indeed, personal hygiene. It is perhaps natural that the homeless masses, huddled together in the cold station tunnels, become the first to fall victims to the virus. The brother of the injured man from the opening tries his best to alert someone to his brother’s injuries but the homeless hostel is full, the station guards are not interested and the pharmacist just hands him some painkiller’s without bothering to enquire about the problem. Once his brother has turned we quickly see the homeless gain their revenge as they tear chunks of any passerby’s who are unfortunate enough to cross their path.
As with his other animated works, Yeon’s Seoul Station offers very little in terms of admirable characters with whom to align ourselves with. We are introduced to the main protagonists and character flaws abound. Hye-sun has fled a brothel and now lives a transient life with her internet-café addicted boyfriend Ki-woon whose idea to solve their financial crisis is to pimp Hye-sun out. Once the zombie crisis hits the two are separated and whilst Ki-woon joins forces with a man claiming to be Hye-sun’s father, Hye-sun experiences a horrific chase through the streets of Seoul until she ends up aimlessly walking along the underground train lines desperate to leave the city.
In terms of aesthetics – these are fast moving zombies. Long gone are the meandering, carnivorous somnambulants of George A. Romero’s works, or even the comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004). Instead, these are from the same breed as zombies from films such as 28 Days Later (2002) and World War Z (2003). They move fast, the infection spreads like lightening and, despite an inability to successfully run up and down stairs, they are pretty lethal.
Just as the lead characters are pretty dismal overall the film has a fairly resigned view of humankind. We see brave and humanitarian acts from only a couple of people and their actions are swiftly rewarded with death. In a very clear reference to the Gwang-ju massacre (when the South Korean army opened fire on students in 1980) we see the non-infected corralled together as the police prevent them from leaving the quarantine area. Once the army arrives the police water cannon is replaced by live ammunition and the infected and the non-infected are indiscriminately killed. Naturally the first to die is a homeless man who voices the idea that the South Korean state ultimately owed him more than social exclusion and a cold station platform to sleep on.
Whilst not wishing to spoil any surprises it is safe to say that the film’s conclusion is also suitable depressing. The end plot twist reveals the worst of humanity as even the classic zombie-movie trope of father searching for his child has its darker side revealed. Rather suitable for a film that was critiquing homelessness the final show down takes place in the luxurious designer show apartments that now litter the Seoul landscape. In this contrast we are shown the key idea that the director is hoping to stress – life really is not fair.
This is a bleak but engaging animation whose worthy message is sometimes a little heavy handed but nevertheless works well as an accompaniment to the bigger-budget (and arguably more enjoyable) Train to Busan.
Seoul Station was shown on November 12 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.