Hae-sun wanders around the Seoul railway station after being abandoned by her boyfriend but soon she finds herself caught in the middle of a zombie outbreak amongst the homeless population at the station. Hae-sun flees with what few remaining survivors there are only to find out the epidemic is spreading quickly through the city. Now her father and ex-boyfriend attempt to find Hae-sun amidst all the chaos before the city is shut down by the government.
With half a dozen animated shorts and two features under his belt, Yeon Sang-Ho has managed to grab everyone’s attention due to the bleak tone of his films that capture the many facets of people and society as a whole. Perhaps it’s because of this focus on the darker side of mankind, it was natural for his first venture into genre filmmaking would be a zombie movie.
After Hae-sun has a fight with her boyfriend, Ki-woong, from him trying to pimp her out in order for them to pay rent, Hae-sun finds herself all alone on the streets. Eventually she finds her way to the Seoul station in an attempt to find shelter. At the same time, a strange outbreak has occurred amongst the homeless population causing the dead to come back to life. Now Hae-sun is on the run along with what few remaining survivors there are but officials ignore their pleas believing it to be nothing more than bums who are simply out of control. It isn’t before long that the outbreak is widespread throughout the city. After finding the ad soliciting Hae-sun, her father, Suk-gyu, heads into the heart of the epidemic in order to rescue his daughter.
The zombie genre might be one of the most tiresome genres currently; whether they’re big budget blockbusters, small no-budget indie features, or television series, it seems like we cannot escape the undead. Yet none of them seem to have the impact or staying power that Romero’s original trilogy has. Perhaps it’s because modern zombie tales focus less on the human aspect and more on the gut-munching and chase sequences. As much as I don’t like zombie movies myself, I was drawn to seeing “Seoul Station” because it was being directed by Yeon Sang-Ho. Someone who is so entrenched in the ugliness of what humans are capable of that I thought he would be the person who could actually make a compelling movie about zombies.
In terms of story, “Seoul Station” doesn’t defer from the traditional narrative: an unknown sources causes the undead to rise, mass panic ensues, a group of survivors try to escape the city as it’s overrun with the undead. Simple enough but the film’s zombie plot exists as a framework or more of a backdrop to the actual story of a father trying to find his daughter. And as one would expect, there are some social issues thrown into the mix that are easy enough to understand even if you’re not fully aware of Korea’s socio-political environment (that includes me).
Certainly there are some elements that will be lost in translation but being a commentary piece isn’t the primary objective of “Seoul Station”. It is about exploring the depth of the characters. And I’m going to so far as to say that Hae-sun (the daughter) is one of the most compelling characters I’ve seen in a zombie movie in some time. Yeon Sang-Ho effectively utilizes Hae-sun’s character to highlight issues within Korea — such as how people view and treat the homeless — without ever making those pieces seem heavy handed. More importantly, he brings out so much life in this animated character (also in thanks to Shim Eun-kyung) that her journey is not only compelling but tragic. You admire her struggle and ability to survive but watching as her story unfolds is engaging to a point that that you almost want to double over as the climax delivers a hard hitting emotional blow. An ending that is as tragic as it is cruel but shows how well Yeon Sang-Ho handles his characters and that animated films — that aren't for children — can still have an impact.
If I had to give “Seoul Station” credit for only one thing it would be the way in which Yeon Sang-Ho brings out so much humanity in his animation. There’s something real even in the way the characters are designed. Overall though, “Seoul Station” taps into something that’s been missing from zombie films for too long: quality characters and a satisfying examination of what people are capable of and how they react in a situation like this. It’s not about the zombies. It’s not about gore. It’s about humans. I don’t know what or who inspired Yeon Sang-Ho — if anybody — but it feels like he was able to capture the same kind of atmosphere and story that Romero was aiming for when he made “Night of the Living Dead”.