Seoul Station

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/01/16 22:46:39

"Even more than usual, the zombies are angry."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I don't know if the animation medium has ever had someone quite like Yeon Sang-ho before - a distinctive voice who works fast enough that this is his third film in five years even without counting the big live-action movie that ties into it (or vice versa, depending on your priorities). A venture into overt horror compared to the dark but real-world stories of "The Kind of Pigs" and "The Fake:, it's still just as cynical, incisive, and angry as those movies.

You can tell where Yeon is coming from from the start, when two young men near Seoul's central subway hub are talking about the need for universal health care but aren't so charitable in deed when a bad-smelling but clearly ailing homeless man stumbles past and collapses but they do nothing. Another vagrant does, but he has trouble convincing anybody to come and help before the first dies and it turns out that what he was suffering from is some sort of zombie virus. They aren't the only ones seeking shelter in the station for the night; teenage runaway Hye-sun (voice of Shim Eun-kyung) is avoiding her boyfriend Gi-woong (voice of Lee Joon), who figures the best way for them to pay the rent they're well behind on is to list her as an escort. As the virus tears through first the station and the city, it's fortunate that Suk-kyu (Ryu Seung-ryong) is one of the first to see the ad Gi-woong has put on line; he's been looking for his little girl for months and no horde of flesh-eating monsters is going to get in his way.

A lot of animators look to make their mark by creating beauty and grandeur, worlds that you can get lost in populated by imaginatively-designed characters. Yeon, on the other hand, goes for ugliness and sometimes banality; his on-screen Seoul is close enough to reality that it wouldn't be surprising if he just scanned reference photos into a computer and then applied a filter to give them more solid colors, and the characters are rendered digitally, though generally without the three-dimensional quality that generally conjures up, and the character look is not exactly pretty, though also not usually the deliberately ugly look some artists and animators eager to prove they are not making kid stuff adopt. These characters look worn, and their faces contort easier to screams than happy laughter.

It fits with Yeon's approach to the characters - though he clearly sympathizes with the underdogs and downtrodden, he's perfectly willing to admit that they can be just as selfish and petty as those higher on the ladder, making the whole thing tense and fraught from the word go, and then when it explodes, the zombie action seems like pure rage being channeled back into a world that has dismissed these homeless and otherwise unvalued people. Yeon may not be explicitly taking the side of the undead most of the time, but the way the zombie virus can fester in a society's underclass and then explode across the city at once, knocking the very foundations out, is an idea that permeates the film as it moves from underground passages to an empty block of luxury condos, while the climax is built around the establishment tending to treat the less fortunate as the enemy, defaulting to leaving them in harm's way to protect the more obviously valuable parts of the population.

The centerpiece action scenes are kind of great, especially when they can focus on being stuck in a small space with someone who is rapidly turning; the virtual camera work picks up the pace and the off-print character designs become really ugly. He does good work at a larger scale as well, making an alley battle epic by carefully establishing the stakes and then building chaos. It is at times very clear that Yeon does not have the same budget here that he enjoyed for Train to Busan, as large sections of the city seem far too empty as people drive through them and battles that looked to escalate back off.

He does have a little bit more available in terms of resources than he had before, as is a little bit surprising to look at the voice cast for the film and not find unknowns there. Shim Eun-kyung, who starred in Miss Granny, does the voice of Hye-sun, and finds the spot where she's the one that has common sense in the scenes with Gi-woong even if she can also be petulant and immature, really turning things up when it comes time for terror. Ryu Seung-ryong and Lee Joon may or may not have recorded together as Suk-kyu and Gi-woong, but they produce an enjoyably confrontational chemistry regardless.

It's worth noting that, going into "Seoul Station"'s festival screening, I didn't realize it had any connection to "Train to Busan" other than both being South Korean zombie movies; I'd just been impressed with Yeon Sang-ho's previous work. It's impressive enough that this horror movie is of a piece with his other films; that it functions as the flip side of one of the summer's best live-action horror movies is icing on the cake.

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