Seoul Station (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Studiocanal) Running Time: 118 minutes approx.
I don’t know if this is a precedent or not but after storming the Korean box office with his Train To Busan, Yeon Sang-Ho released an animated prequel a month later. However, both films can be watched without prior knowledge of the other, which may confuse those unaware Yeon is behind both and dismiss this as a rip-off.
Which it isn’t – in fact, there is plenty about this film which is bolder and more satisfying than its more exoteric live action successor, whilst staying closer to the zombie film remit. As an animation, it can get away with certain things Train To Busan couldn’t, or at least do them easier and cheaper.
Its biggest strength is the incisive social commentary that drives the story. The film begins with an old man staggering towards Seoul Station with blood around his neck and arms, but as he is a Homeless no-one will help him. One man does try to help but their impoverished status meets with refusal and dismissal. The old man eventually dies but his body disappears.
He suddenly reappears, feasting on the flesh of a woman and shortly after, Seoul Station is running rampant with flesh eating zombies. Meanwhile, Hye-sun, a former prostitute argues with her boyfriend Ki-woon when he tries to get Hye-sun to go back on the game to pay off their debts. Hye-Sun’s father sees the internet ad and tries to find his daughter but the zombie outbreak separates them further.
Unlike Train To Busan where the titular transport is host to most of the action, Seoul Station shares that honour with the immediate surrounding areas, keeping the proximity of the outbreak fairly close. Of course, Seoul is South Korea’s capital so being a thriving metropolis means that just the local populace alone with guarantee a sizeable and problematic epidemic of the undead.
If the idea of this being animated suggest limitations of the visual flair and the visceral effect of the violence and gore, this medium in fact lends itself to being more shocking than CGI blood and prosthetic decapitations. The animation is not quite motion capture or rotoscoping by achingly close enough to mimic authentic movements, but the zombies are suffused with a jerky quality to their motions that actors can’t replicate.
The real horror is, as started above, in the script’s caustic reflection on the injustices created by the caste system. In the opening scene the old man shuffles by a hipster bemoaning the lack of social healthcare in Korea who then rescinds his offer of help to the old man upon realising he is a Homeless. Yes, in this instance they are a classified group, firmly at the bottom of the ladder and treated with contempt.
Even among the local needy, the Homeless are seen as scum, the old man’s friend being bullied at a nursing shelter while seeking help. It is impossible not to feel angry when the station staff and even the police refuse to listen to the Homeless as they flee the first mob of zombies. Of course, once their own lives are threatened it becomes a different story, which was addressed in a less trenchant manner in Train To Busan.
Standing outside of the mainstream allows for the characters to be crafted from rougher sources, as Hye-sun illustrates. As a runaway from home and again from a bullying pimp, she already feels dispensable and only good for one thing but once she is caught up in the fight for survival, her worth is put to the test when she is helped out by strangers, only for them to fall.
Ki-woon is hardly perfect boyfriend material, claiming to be Hye-sun’s saviour after her life on the game yet expects her to give him a free pass to waste their money at internet cafes. But the threat of losing Hye-sun, not to mention her desperate father arriving, leads to a change of heart.
But this plot thread has a shock twist at its conclusion and is arguably more horrifying than the zombie stampede. It is nasty and cruel at its core and one wonders what kind of sick mind Yeon has to conceive such an ending, yet conversely it is bittersweet genius, a tragic denouement of poetic justice, to draw a thick line under everything that has happened in the previous 90 minutes.
The pacing is just right, starting quiet but with an ominous air before unleashing the first act of undead violence that leads to the tap being opened to full and the flood beginning. The character building is not as in depth as it could have been but we get a pretty good reading of the main personalities and the themes of social inequality fairly quickly and certainly Hye-sun is an easy protagonist to focus on.
Yeon is also mindful of the fact that such a film requires action set pieces and there are many of them, some heart stopping moments of dread, terror and sheer tension beautifully played out, rivalling – and even topping – those in the live action film. It’s fair to say that the atmosphere is so taut and palpable that we forget this is an animation and we allow ourselves to be manipulated in such a masterful manner.
With films like King Of Pigs to his credit, it is no surprise that Yeon would be so daring and creative to use the animated medium to make a damning film based on social issues with such directness rather than hide behind the allusion and symbolism of fantasy. Yet we should be glad filmmakers like him exist to inspire others to challenge the norm in such a subversive manner.
The beauty of Seoul Station is that stands on its own merits as well as being a congruent companion piece to Train To Busan, thus hopefully negating any discussion as to which films is better, as they both do what they do superbly well.
Ballsy, brutal and brilliant!
2.0 Stereo LPCM
5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Rating – ****
Man In Black