Seoul Station (2016)

SEPTEMBER 25, 2020


I enjoyed Train to Busan, but I thought the frequent claims of it being one of the best zombie movies ever made were, at the very least, overblown. It was, you know, pretty good! But so were things like Warm Bodies and The Rezort - where's the love for those equally serviceable/enjoyable movies? The awkward pacing (that train sure stopped a lot) and removal of the film's best character barely over the halfway point kept it out of top 10 contention in my house, but I was still happy to see it find success, though it took me nearly four years to finally get around to watching its animated prequel film Seoul Station (Korean: Seoulyeok), and I will admit it's partly because the sequel (Peninsula) is now hitting the US and I wanted to be all caught up should I get the chance to see it.

I was also kind of unsure how exciting a prequel would be, because Train to Busan didn't have much going on at the beginning. Like Night of the Living Dead, we didn't see the exact start of it, but it was far from a major outbreak - things were still continuing as normal with just the odd thing happening in the background for a bit (let's not forget that Busan's characters were mostly people going to work or school). So in my head, a prequel would be what is usually the least interesting thing about any zombie movie that bothers to include it: how it specifically started. Funnily enough, the night before at horror trivia there was a round on that very thing - they would name a movie (i.e. "Zombieland") and we'd have to identify the cause for the zombie outbreak ("Mad Cow disease"), and for at least half of them my initial reply was "Who cares?" Romero never fully explained it, just follow his lead!

Plus I remember that there was quite a bit of the other film devoted to the hero's work troubles, as they had some kind of connection to what was going on, so I was also worried we'd spend half the movie with an animated version of him at work while his bosses did shady shit. Long story short: I didn't want a prequel! But I'm on the HMAD clock, so whatever. And thankfully I was wrong; it starts a few hours before Busan did and the final 15 minutes are actually overlapping the timeframe, albeit with different characters (best as I can tell, no one from Busan is featured here). I still feel some of its events should have been enough for things to be in more of a panic mode in Busan, but it's forgivable, because honestly - for the most part I think I actually prefer this to its bigger budgeted, live action sibling.

I mention the budget because honestly, the only thing holding this one back is the presentation. The art style itself is fine, but the animation itself is very stiff, and whenever there's a crowd they don't even try to hide how often they are reusing the same zombie (and human) "extras", which is fine for a video game* but doesn't quite pass the smell test in a feature film. It's very distracting for starters, and if you think about it, it's completely unnecessary - as a prequel, they should be keeping mobs of either side of the war to a minimum, because again this is all leading up to a film that is pretty calm when it starts. If this was the prequel to something that kicked off like Dawn of the Dead (i.e. panic, people abandoning their normal lives in droves, etc.) then fine, but when you see the events of the back half of the movie it makes Busan's characters all look like clueless morons.

Otherwise, I found this more compelling and less "stock" (hat tip to Lars Ulrich) than Busan. Smartly, it focuses on a few people as opposed to just a standard absentee dad (I still shake my head that they doubled down on "movie dad" cliches with that guy, missing a recital AND buying a lame gift), and I was a bit stunned to see it focus on grimmer issues than I would expect from an animated movie. Perhaps this is the norm, as I don't watch a lot of animated films for adults, but over 90 minutes the movie tackled prostitution, homelessness, rape, and class struggles - hardly what I was expecting, especially since the live-action counterpart kept things pretty light. Like, if I told you that there's a live action movie and an animated one about the same event, and had you guess which one had a pimp beating one of his girls up and then trying to rape her, would you guess the latter? Because you'd be right.

The opening scenes feature a homeless man struggling to find medical help for his brother, who seems to be patient zero for the whole thing, but it's not long into the movie that it basically cuts back and forth between Hye-sun, a runaway who has been trying to escape her life of prostitution, and Ki-woong, her boyfriend who is fine with her continuing that lifestyle if it means they can pay rent. After a fight they get separated just as things start becoming crazy, and the film is more or less their attempts to reunite as the world around them starts falling apart. Ki-woong is joined by her father, who I kept expecting to feed him to the zombies since he can't stand him, but the two eventually work together and the guy even saves the young man's life at one point. Hye-sun, on the other hand, is joined by another homeless man who helps her get across the city via the subway tunnels and other means.

Naturally, zombies attack on the regular, and it never stops being suspenseful thanks to the back and forth structure. The homeless man could go any minute, leaving Hye-sun alone, and then in the other scenes since both men are trying to find her, there would still be momentum if one of them happened to perish. Plus, being a zombie movie, you're of course just waiting for some human to turn out to be evil, which also adds to the tension (and when it happens, it's actually a solid surprise). And through it all, there's the heartbreaking element that these characters are all disposable in the "normal" world. Hye-sun says she just wants to get home, and her partner weeps that he just wants to have a home at all - it's a pretty sobering moment, especially now as millions of my fellow Americans are going to end up like him if Covid can't get under control. None of these people are bad, they're just the unfortunate reality of a world where the rich jerks in charge simply do not care about anyone but themselves, and that's something we can certainly identify with now. Indeed, in the wake of hearing how much our "billionaire" President pays in taxes, how much of your $1,200 stimulus do you have left in your account? And don't forget we have to pay taxes on it next year!

I haven't seen Peninsula yet, though from what I hear it was a letdown (then again that's from the people who loved Busan so maybe I'll be the opposite on that too). But if you ask me, it's best to just ignore the connection to the films when watching this one. Again, there are no shared characters, and the spectacle of the third act doesn't quite jive with Busan's opening scenes (it reminded me in a way of trying to watch Fulci's Zombie as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead). Just take it as a standalone film that wanted to shine a light on the poor and underrepresented people who will be the first to get killed and forgotten in a plague like this, and - janky animation aside - you'll hopefully agree that it's one of the better zombie films of the past decade.

What say you?

*Funnily enough, I just finally started playing Dead Rising 2 and was again kind of blown away, as I was in the original, at the variety of zombies you can see at once in any given crowd scene. The first game is what made me want to buy a 360 after playing a bit of it at E3 in 2006 - my mind kind of reels at what they can accomplish with the upcoming Series X if the series is revived.

1 comment:

  1. I feel like a lot of animation geared towards adults tends to go overboard with perceived "mature" content in order to differentiate it from family-friendly fare.
    As though no one would take a quality animated work seriously if it appeals to families or kids, so it has to have specifically "adult" themes in order to clue in the audience that this is "not for the kiddies".


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