VOD film review: Seoul Station
Rachel Bowles | On 17, Apr 2017
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Seung-ryong Ryu, Franciska Friede, Joon Lee
Watch Seoul Station online in the UK: iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / TalkTalk TV Store / Rakuten TV / Google Play
South Korean horror has had an incredible year, with Park Chan Wook’s Gothic messed-up masterpiece The Handmaiden, Na Hong-jin’s atmospheric, supernatural mystery The Wailing and Yeon Sang-ho’s apocalyptic blockbuster Train to Busan. By far the most commercially successful, Yeon Sang ho’s zombie film was 2016’s most popular film across Southeast Asia’s screens. Studio execs keen to cash in on Busan’s gravy train has led to Yeon’s 2015 animated movie, Seoul Station, effectively released as a prequel of sorts, despite being made before the director’s box office smash. This marketing-led tying in of the two may leave some viewers bewildered or disappointed, if expecting more of the same – there are little of the broad genre strokes and film-as-rollercoaster thrills of Train to Busan within Seoul Station, nor do the films share any characters. They are essentially only sequentially related, the sunrise at the end of Seoul Station marking the beginning of Train to Busan.
Seoul Station itself, despite many promising qualities and interesting subtext, has enough of its own internal problems, especially in terms of narrative logic, without having to carry the weight of answering Train to Busan’s ontological questions, outside of providing a timeline for the original zombie outbreak in the Korean capital before its spread. Seoul Station is also an interstitial, transitional work in Yeon’s filmography, mixing the gritty, social realism and existential horror of critically acclaimed The King of Pigs (2011), the first Korean animation to be shown at Cannes, with Busan’s genre tropes. It’s a shame that the evidently talented Yeon can’t balance these divergent aesthetic and narrative concerns.
The homeless people that sleep rough in the station are already regarded as subhuman by the general populace before the zombie outbreak – the film opens with two left-leaning hipsters espousing the need for universal healthcare, before, without any self-awareness, denying an injured vagrant aid, because of his destitute class status. The vagrant collapses, before his also homeless brother finds him and tries to solicit medical help. Elsewhere in the city on this sweltering summer’s night, teenage runaway Hyun-Suen is on the brink of homelessness herself, in desperate need to raise the rent money for her squalid bedsit that she shares with her sleazy, abusive boyfriend Ki-woong. Being too lazy and immature to find gainful employment, Ki-woong creates an online ad to pimp out Hyun-Suen without her permission. Across the city, Hyun-Suen’s estranged father Suk-gyu is searching for his daughter, and, having found the ad online, responds, meeting Ki-woong and demanding to know the whereabouts of Hyun-Suen.
Unbeknownst to any of them, the dying vagrant is carrying a deadly zombie virus that quickly turns pandemic, causing the government to declare martial law in an effort to contain the outbreak. The army’s blockade separates Hyuen-Suen from safety (and sanctuary from destitution and prostitution) through a reunion with her beloved father.
Yeon’s no-frills animation – black outlines with a murky green-greyish, muted colour palette – reflects his bleak, unflinching criticism of Korean society. In this capitalist, individualist environment, those in need blame those who are more disenfranchised than themselves, and implore indifferent authority figures to help, citing their worthiness in patriotism, whether through national service or devotion to respectable work. Acts of human kindness are rare; even those who seem helpful hesitate before aiding the needy. Subtle touches, such as ultimately useless civilian blockades against zombies made up from LG boxes, show the inefficacy of individual heroism in the face of rampant consumer capitalism. The genius of Yeon’s film is making the undead zombie viral apocalypse seem like the natural progression (or regression) of a society that’s rotten and diseased to its core.
Homelessness is essentially what becomes viral in Seoul Station, as zombies make the city uninhabitable. A particularly moving scene shows Hyuen-Suen fleeing along subway tracks with a homeless man. When she comments that all she wants to do is return home, the vagrant responds with a childlike wailing, as he exclaims that he doesn’t even have a home to return to. It fails to dawn on Hyuen-Suen herself that she is now in the same position. She eventually escapes the quarantine into what she thinks is a friendly stranger’s apartment, before realising its a decadent, spacious show home with extortionate price tags on luxurious furnishings. Ultimately, its nothing more than simulacra for a real house, family and sanctuary. There is no home to return to.
Unfortunately, humanistic nihilism gives way to black comedy and cynicism – a shocking plot twist in the film’s second half cause a huge, untenable tonal shift, incongruent with the former narrative and character arcs and spoiling Seoul Station’s hard-won social poignancy and cultural relevance.