MONTREAL — South Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho has built his reputation with mature animated films marked by unconventional subject matter, including the Cannes-selected “The King Of Pigs” and “The Fake.” Yeon’s latest animated project “Seoul Station,” making its Canadian Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, tackles arguably more familiar subject matter — a zombie outbreak — even if its path to cinema screens is more unusual. Yeon was given the opportunity to develop a live-action feature set in the universe of “Seoul Station” — South Korean and U.S. box-office smash “Train to Busan” — with the animated film reaching festivals first, but its sequel beating it into South Korean multiplexes. Despite what the films’ respective visibilities may suggest (“Seoul Station” has yet to find a U.S. distributor), Yeon’s animated take is more than just a companion to its explosive big-budget sequel, and in many ways plays out as the more original and interesting of the two films.
Despite serving as a prequel to “Train to Busan,” “Seoul Station” is entirely self-contained, with no characters crossing over into the live-action sphere. As the titles make clear, train stations serve as an epicenter for the flesh-eating plague in this series. That said, the animated film couldn’t be further from the “ ‘Snowpiercer’-with-zombies” formula observed in our review of “Train to Busan.” Yeon’s interests here lie with the transients that lay claim to the station itself, and for this film’s purpose, the outbreak begins with an elderly homeless man taking shelter at the titular Seoul Station. The scope of the film never expands beyond the few characters Yeon chooses to focus on, following them for the first night of the outbreak. Unlike “Train to Busan,” cellular technology isn’t a means to acquire further information on the epidemic; the heroes only communicate with each other, not the world at large.
The narrative of “Seoul Station,” similar to that of “Train to Busan,” is driven by the estrangement of the father and daughter as they move through an increasingly overrun Seoul in search of each other. The main characters in the film — another homeless man concerned with finding aid for patient zero; Hae-sun, a young woman on the run from her former pimp; her boyfriend Ki-woong; and a man who claims to be her father, Suk-gyu — are also on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The centrality of such marginalized, hopeless figures, all dismissed by social services at some point over the feature’s runtime and later quarantined by the military, resonates with the concerns of left-wing protests in Seoul late last year.
“Seoul Station” has the burden of proving itself in two arenas: firstly, as worthy independent of its live-action successor; and secondly, justifying its existence as yet another zombie movie. In regards to these challenges, this animated rendition of a zombified Seoul is, for better or worse (better in this writer’s opinion), less beholden to the conventions of South Korea’s popular culture juggernaut. Not to discount the performative style of the Korean Wave, but Yeon realizes his themes more clearly and creatively without the expectation to feature Korean drama stars, even if voice actors Ryu Seung-ryong and Shim Eun-kyung are likely to be familiar to Korean audiences. The film maintains a nihilistic register throughout, and the twist at the end is surprising specifically for how it falls outside of the purview of the zombie genre, instead emerging from the characters’ interpersonal drama prior to the outbreak.
The economy of the animation — “Seoul Station” never looks cheap, but is clearly not produced with the budget of a Studio Ghibli film — keeps the focus on the characters and off over-the-top methods of dispatching the zombie hordes. When the narrative does demand a greater sense of scale or spectacle, such as a sequence featuring a wave of zombies far more numerous than had been heretofore hinted at, “Seoul Station” delivers. In one memorable scene, a mob of zombies attempt to follow Hae-sun onto scaffolding, most of them leaping to their doom and hitting every steel beam on the way down. Not to claim an expertise in zombie cinema, but this particular staging feels unfamiliar, and its animated execution is something you wouldn’t expect to see on, say, “The Walking Dead,” with its focus on splatter.
A few story beats read too familiar (it’s hardly a surprise to discover someone unwittingly infected amongst a group of survivors) but these moments inevitably come with the zombie territory. Even if “Seoul Station” ambles towards a narrative dead-end — so much so that its sequel required a new entry point — the film’s social advocacy and regional specificity, as well as its effective staging, make it a worthy entry into the zombie canon. As “Train to Busan” blows up at the Korean box office, one hopes that distributors worldwide take notice of “Seoul Station” and that Yeon Sang-ho doesn’t forsake animation for live-action filmmaking. [B]