Several groups of people try to survive a zombie pandemic that unleashes itself in downtown Seoul.
August 17, 2016 (South Korea)
Seoul Station, a title that carries a double-meaning only to souls living in English speaking countries, is South Korean writer-director Sang-ho Yeon’s animated prequel to his zombie masterpiece Train to Busan (2016). Whereas the live action original was a surprisingly tender meditation on family and sacrifice, Seoul Station goes a much darker route. Blatantly political, anti-authoritarian, and humanistic towards social outcasts, is it as good as the original? Well, regrettably no. It’s too scattershot, lacking the acerbic pacing that made the first film so brilliant. But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot to enjoy here, especially if you’re a fan of the biting, (pun intended), social commentary that usually comes with zombie movies.
Once again, we are thrust into the lives of several people living and struggling in Seoul, South Korea. The opening takes place before the zombie outbreak; however, there is no explanation given about the origins of the contagion. In that regard, Seoul Station could be viewed as either a traditional sequel or a separate movie altogether. It’s shorter than Train to Busan, so it suffers from weaker character development. That’s not to say the people populating the movie aren’t intriguing, but some of them come off as stereotypes.
What is on point is Yeon’s savvy for escalating tension. Although there are many characters, the main storyline revolves around Suk-gyu, a man trying to reconnect with his runaway daughter, Hye-sun. She currently lives with her boyfriend Ki-woong, a sleaze who would rather sell her as a prostitute than get a job. Hye-sun has already escaped one pimp, and now she is worried she has fallen in with another. These characters are emotionally desperate, and then the apocalypse hits. It’s a masterful setup to a story.
Compassion versus selfishness is the recurring theme of the series. Train to Busan gave us a man who wasn’t a clichéd “deadbeat dad”, just more preoccupied with getting ahead at work than taking care of his family. Seoul Station flips that narrative. Suk-gyu is desperate to save his daughter, so much so that he essentially kidnaps her boyfriend to find her. Shockingly, Ki-woong has the most compelling journey, growing from cowardice to courage. He realizes, as the world crumbles around him, that he genuinely loves Hye-sun. It’s a lovely, redemptive moment.
Unfortunately, the execution of the actual zombie moments doesn’t feel as fresh. The wonderful conceit of the moving train isn’t present, so many of the situations feel familiar. Yeon does maintain the same terrifying claustrophobia. Since this one is animated, he can give us a hell of a lot more zombies. But there was just something scarier about seeing real people contort unnaturally, (with the sped-up footage and dropped frames). Also, I felt like there were a few continuity errors between the two. One of the big discoveries in Train to Busan is that the zombies suffer from night blindness; characters could sneak past them when the train went through tunnels. Most of Seoul Station takes place at night, and they don’t suffer that problem.
The political subtext is acidic, to say the least. Much of it comes down to the idea of protecting the city as an independent entity, rather than the people in it. Seems idiotic as Yeon presents it, but fear can drive masses to do most anything, (just look at recent elections). For the first half much of the otherizing is inflicted on the homeless, an easy target. They receive the blame for the epidemic: upstanding citizens simply do not go around eating one another. It’s a ridiculous belief, of course, quickly dispelled as the zombie hordes grow. Therein lies Yeon’s satire. All beliefs that prop up certain groups, while vilifying others, are ultimately doomed to fail. It’s not nearly as humanistic a message as Train to Busan, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
Once Yeon starts demonizing militarism and ranting about communism, the subtly seems to leave. I can sympathize with a South Korean filmmaker proselytizing so emphatically, since he lives in close proximity to a fascist manbaby. The last half hour is fantastic, when dark secrets about Hye-sun and her father are revealed. This all happens in a model home filled with floorshow furniture, a fitting metaphor for the transience of civility. Sometimes the mundane monsters are far more insidious.
The voice acting is excellent across the board. I was fortunate enough to see it with subtitles, which is really the way to go. Many times an English cast, (no matter how fantastic), has to fill in the extra vowels with extra words, leading to a stilted performance. The animation is rendered well, though more workmanlike than say a Studio Ghibli film. It’s more on par with Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (1997) or Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000), which isn’t terrible company to keep. Overall, Seoul Station is an excellent zombie film, although it does pale in comparison to the previous classic. It is currently available on DVD/VOD.