'Seoul Station' ('Seoul-yeok'): Film Review

Seoul Station Still H 2016
Courtesy of Annecy Film Festival
A simple, thrilling ride through a fiend-infested world.

Yeon Sang-ho releases his second zombie film in a year, an animated feature about an outbreak of the undead in South Korea's railway system.

As his live-action, zombie-on-the-tracks blockbuster Train to Busan continues its record-breaking charge at the South Korean box office, director Yeon Sang-ho returns with his second feature of the year. Strictly speaking, however, it's less a follow-up and more a prologue-prequel. Produced (across 2014 and early 2015) and premiered (at a Brussels festival in April) before Train — which was filmed in 2015 and bowed at Cannes in May — Seoul Station charts the spread of an undead outbreak at the titular railway terminus where one can catch, well, a train to Busan.

Meanwhile, Seoul Station serves as a reminder of Yeon's roots — the film is, like his first two features (The King of Pigs in 2011, and The Fake two years later), a relentlessly gritty animated feature reflecting South Korea's social malaise. Having just made its domestic bow at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival — a homecoming after its appearances at Annecy, Edinburgh and Montreal — Seoul Station will be released commercially in South Korea on Aug. 18.

A decidedly smaller-scaled affair, the film might garner increased attention given the runaway success of Train to Busan — to provide some context, the total gross for Yeon's first two features amounted to just 5 percent of Train's opening-day gross. In another light, however, Korean viewers might wonder why they have to revisit the zombie outbreak all over again but in the less visceral medium of animation. Seoul Station's future probably will consist of yet another tour around European and North American festivals dedicated to independent cinema and animated films.

Just like The King of Pigs and The Fake, Seoul Station's aesthetic style and social commentary are certainly in-sync with the more political, European bande dessinée, known for its engagement with real life. And the film also nods at traditions set by George A. Romero's rough-and-ready subversive zombie flicks, as Yeon moulds the gore and grotesquerie into admittedly understated social metaphors about hopelessness and alienation in a society ridden with inequality.

The film begins in front of Seoul Station's terminus building, as a bloodied pensioner shuffles by and collapses. A fashionable young man, in the middle of telling his friend how he believes in universal healthcare, steps forward to look but then immediately retreats, saying he doesn't need to intervene because the old man's just a "stinky homeless guy." Nobody else seems willing to help: As the dying man's younger brother runs around for help, he is frowned at by social workers, denigrated by police officers and roughed up by hoodlums.

Revenge is nigh, of course, as the old man soon turns into a savage, blood-sucking zombie, setting off chaos that sweeps through the station, first among those squatting in the corridors and then among everybody in the terminus' vicinity. It's against this backdrop that the protagonists make their entry. Hye-sun (voiced by Shim Eun-kyung) has just run away from her previous life of quasi-slavery at a brothel, and is now living with Ki-woong (Lee Joon), her good-for-nothing boyfriend whose idea of earning a living is pimping out Hye-sun online. After a row about this, the pair separate and are swept up in the chaos bursting out of Seoul Station: Hye-sun witnesses and narrowly escapes a bloodbath up close at the local police station, while Ki-woong's search for Hye-sun is bolstered by the appearance of Hye-sun's heavily built father (Ryu Seong-ryong).

As the trio race around town to flee the undead and find each other, they run into extreme measures put in place to contain what the authorities consider an insurrection: The undead and the survivors find themselves up against barricades manned by fully armed soldiers with their tanks, water cannons and live ammunition. Echoing the sentiments expressed in a long line of Korean monster movies stretching all the way back to Bong Joon-ho's 2006 hit The Host, Yeon unfurls a scenario in which the state machine shows its true colors in preserving its power over what it sees as an uprising of a plebeian mob.

This deadly manifestation of class-defined chasms is brought into sharp focus in the film's final showdown, which finds the three leading characters' fates unfolding in a series of lavishly decorated show flats — a fantastical (but also fake) milieu worlds away from the three protagonists or the street-sleeping underclass they belong to. The moral and the messages here are obvious, and the screenplay is, apart from the final twist, admittedly short of surprises; the film looks more like Yeon's prep work for the bigger canvas he would eventually get for Train to Busan. While not exactly as intriguing and powerful as his previous animated features, Seoul Station still offers visuals and a narrative in perpetual, gripping motion.

Production companies:  Studio Dadashow in association with Finecut in a Next Entertainment, Finecut and Myung Films co-presentation
Cast: Ryu Syeong-ryong, Shim Eun-kyung, Lee Joon
Director-screenwriter: Yeon Sang-ho
Producers: Lee Dong-ha, Youngjoo Suh, Yeon Sang-ho
Executive producers: Kim Woo-taek, Youngjoo Suh, Lee Eun
Art director: Ryun Ki-hyun
Editors: Yeon Sang-ho, Lee Yeon-jung
Music: Jang Yeong-gyu
International sales: Finecut

In Korean

Not rated, 92 minutes