Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writer: Sang-ho Yeon
Producer: Sang-ho Yeon, Dong-ha Lee, Youngjoo Suh
Stars: Seung-ryong Ryu, Joon Lee, Eun-kyung Shim
A troubled young woman struggles to reunite with her boyfriend and estranged father when a zombie outbreak infects Seoul’s homeless population.
Which makes your eyes roll furthest out of their sockets: the prospect of watching “yet another” Dracula movie, “found footage” flick, or zombie outbreak film? In this oversaturated era of riding a hot horror trend’s coattails years after said trend has peaked, vampires, zombies, and first-person trips to abandoned asylums have been pitched in a continuous clash for supremacy as most overdone subgenre.
Cutting through fright film fandom’s fatigue for any of the above requires true creative ingenuity to make something familiar feel fresh again. As far as the zombie category is concerned, noted filmmaker Sang-ho Yeon has put precisely such an intriguing injection of uniqueness into “Seoul Station,” a somewhat typical tale of an undead epidemic envisioned atypically as an animated Korean film.
What might by commonplace custom for Korean culture can make for quirky appeal to Western tastes, and that is the first feather of fascination in the cap of “Seoul Station.” Troubled couple Ki-woong and Hye-sun are already unable to make rent, but Ki-woong’s more pressing payment issue is affording internet café fees that will keep him logged into his favorite MMO. Ki-woong’s creative solution for generating quick cash? Posting a provocative photo of Hye-sun online and offering her services as a paid escort. Only in a country notorious for extreme video game addiction can such a solution seem somehow sensible.
Hye-sun predictably doesn’t take kindly to Ki-woong making that proposition without her permission, particularly because her previous life as a prostitute is a shame she is anxious to keep in her past. Hye-sun ran away from home some time ago. Her father Suk-kyu has been eager for a family reunion ever since. Ki-woong’s online ad is Suk-kyu’s first clue to Hye-sun’s whereabouts in ages, and distraught dad is not about to overlook this opportunity to track down his daughter at long last.
Meanwhile, an old man with a neck wound stumbles into Seoul Station and begins bleeding out on the ground. His brother is desperate for help, but authorities and upper classes want little to do with these unclean denizens of the city’s subways. Seoul Station is a known haven for derelicts discarded and disrespected by a society preferential to ignoring their existence. Dying painfully in plain sight doesn’t change that.
Turning a blind eye toward the homeless populace does not remain an option for long, however. The old man’s condition worsens and his eventual reanimation as patient zero unleashes an undead epidemic. An infection at first exclusive to barefoot bums and downtrodden drifters cares nothing for caste, quickly causing cascading chaos throughout the city, affecting rich and poor alike. For Hye-sun and Suk-kyu to finally find each other, they must now overcome the obstacle of craven creatures and a panicking police presence turning Seoul’s streets into a deadly battleground.
“Seoul Station” gets right what so much of 21st-century zombie entertainment gets wrong. Chiefly, it remembers George A. Romero’s guiding principle that humans pose the greatest threat to themselves in times of crisis, and zombies function best as intelligent allegory instead of interchangeable adversary.
In addition to chilling horror entertainment, “Seoul Station” offers a layer of thoughtful introspection regarding societal struggles to anyone desiring more meaning behind their monsters. The zombies in “Seoul Station” are a mirroring metaphor for how homeless hordes are often side-eyed as dirty, dangerous mobs to be avoided instead of acknowledged, yet the film is never in your face with a heavy hand of damning or judgmental commentary. Choose to see subtext or don’t, the movie works either way.
Beautiful animation infuses high levels of emotion into facial expressions and posture using minimal amounts of drawn lines. People are rendered with sweat-beaded faces or shirts that don’t fully fit over slouched shoulders for subtle details of characterization. With its theme of literally and figuratively finding one’s way home through unbelievable adversity capable of making Pixar proud, “Seoul Station” conveys a relatable, human story even though actual humans never appear onscreen.
Punches sound like knuckled fingers striking flesh, not exaggerated cartoon effects. The camera discreetly bounces to simulate vehicular movement during a scene in the back of an ambulance. All of the unlimited options of imaginative animation are at the artists’ disposal, yet they smartly restrain themselves to a believably detailed depiction of realism that doesn’t resort to ostentatious illustration or artificial energy.
A good 20 minutes elapses before the outbreak starts spreading at full sprint, though early exposition is used effectively to establish setting and tone. Once momentum begins treading water after the one-hour mark, the movie returns to long lulls whose slower tempo provides less of a functional use for advancing story than in those early scenes. A nip/tuck from 90 to a 75-minute runtime to consolidate redundant characters and flatten speed bumps is the difference between “Seoul Station” being very good versus potentially exceptional.
The finale forgives faulty last act pacing by taking an unforeseeably tragic turn. “Seoul Station” is dark and sad without being as nihilistically bleak as other notable living dead epics, though it doesn’t refrain from pulling dramatic punches. Its last blow is no exception.
With the final fade to black dawns a realization that “Seoul Station” is a mature horror story disguised in a format not commonly known for adult content. Sang-ho Yeon has found an inventive way to make zombies as relevant as ever, without requiring soap opera theatrics for drama or snarling KNB creatures to convey terror.
Review Score: 80